In Favor of Sometimes Sounding Like a Robot

[Note: Venting with occasional rantiness.]

A few weeks ago I read Style Guide: Not Sounding Like An Evil Robot by Scott Alexander. He advises against using technical terms when talking about people and social phenomena unless you really mean them technically because using unfamiliar, atypical vocabulary puts people off. In his words:

The saying goes: “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance”. This is the same idea as “weirdness points”: you can only bother people a certain amount before they go away. So if you have something important to bother them about, don’t also bother them in random ways that don’t matter.

In writing about science or rationality, you already risk sounding too nerdy or out-of-touch with real life. This doesn’t matter much if you’re writing about black holes or something. But if you’re writing about social signaling, or game theory, or anything else where the failure mode is sounding like an evil robot trying to reduce all of life to numbers, you should avoid anything that makes you sound even more like that evil robot.

It’s good advice. You shouldn’t pretend to a level of objectivity and exactitude you can’t deliver, you shouldn’t dress up basic observations in fancy words to make them seem more profound, and (the main reason here) you should be weary of using jargon that marks you as a member of a particular social group if you want to appeal to people outside that group.

I don’t always live up to that. I use jargon, perhaps more than I should. I do try to avoid it unless I believe the reader knows it, or it’s necessary to make the right point, or so useful that I think a reader ought to know it if they don’t already. And on occasion, I admit, I just like to put together an impressive sounding sentence. But generally I aim to write in a relaxed, friendly and straightforward manner.

So why did this rub me the wrong way, just a little?

Here’s the piece of advice I found myself bothered by the most:

Humans -> people. This will instantly make you sound 20% less like an evil robot. Use “humans” only when specifically contrasting with another animal:

Wrong: “I’ve been wondering why humans celebrate holidays.”
Right: “I’ve been wondering why people celebrate holidays.”

It’s suggested that they mean the same thing. They do if you only count, you know, what the word refers to. However, they imply different points of view. A question like: “Why do people celebrate holidays?” invite answers that take for granted all the things that normal people tend to take for granted. You might say that “it’s fun”, “it brings the community together”, “it makes you feel connected to your ancestors”, or “it’s an opportunity to blow off steam” etc. They don’t tend to assume that concepts like “fun”, “community”, the importance of ancestry/identity or the need to “blow off steam” need to be explained.

“Why do humans celebrate holidays?” on the other hand, implies way fewer things to take for granted. It invites us to step outside the context of people talking to each other and consider ourselves from the outside.

Yes! That’s precisely what you should avoid! You know, sounding like an evil robot that doesn’t just understand what normal humans just understand.

Well if you put it that way…

…it still rubs me the wrong way. Possibly even worse than before. It does because it shows that this isn’t a mistake or superficial disagreement. It’s a fundamental rejection of a perspective I consider valuable. When we look at ourselves with a scientific sensibility we recognize that much of what seems intuitively obvious are in fact complex, opaque, and in need of explanation. Sometimes it’s even wrong or misleading.

There’s a comment down the page that elaborates on the problem:

A lot of these can be described as passive or distancing language. Scientific language uses distancing in order to try and remove as much subjective judgment as possible from descriptive language, to remove bias.

Humans -> people. Males -> men, females -> women. Status -> popularity, respect.

I think these in particular portray an outside view of a situation that carries otherizing connotations. The benefit of the scientific language to appear non-judgmental and impersonal is working against you if your intent is to be personable, polite and communal. That’s what makes it awkward. You *want* to appear biased here. You *want* people to feel comfortable. You *want* to be relatable.

I guess the advice “don’t adopt distancing language when trying to win people over” bothers me when part of the actual point you often want to get across is that we, in general, ought to adopt much more of a distanced perspective than we do.

It’s humbling and we need that because of how philosophically narcissistic we have a habit of being. We need to appreciate that looking at the world, and at ourselves, specfically from inside a human consciousness is going to yield a grossly distorted picture. We need to compensate for that by carefully examining and fencing off our assumptions and intuitions, and looking suspiciously at the building blocks of our own mental architecture.

Some concepts play major roles in our minds and cultures: love and hate, good and evil, us and them, beauty and truth, heroism, revenge, virtue, corruption, hope, faith, betrayal, redemption, perfection, purity, degeneracy, loyalty, sacrifice, crime, punishment and reward, destiny, choice, mind, thought, will, desire and purpose. We tirelessly explore them thorough our art, literature and philosophy. They make so much sense to us that we don’t quite realize that they aren’t fundamental parts of reality or central to existence, anywhere but exactly inside our heads.

It needs to be explained how very particularly organized chunks of meat create these structures, live inside them and build elaborate but deluded cosmologies to justify their felt monumental significance as reflecting something outside themselves; something greater, more fundamental and eternal, something transcendent.

Religion is the archetypal example, of course, but you also get philosophy that projects artifacts of the mind like identity, categories, purposes and goals onto the world. That has problems because it confuses useful heuristics for making sense of reality’s surface features for its deeper nature. From that you can derive a sliding scale from more inside view to more outside view, culminating in a fully mechanistic[1] account of everything.

There’s a lot to explain

It’s beyond the scope of a short blog post to defend my materialism/physicalism/naturalism/whatever-you-wanna-call-it but as I see it the world is not at all like we feel it to be. The whole religious impulse is exactly wrong, 180 degrees.

At the same time I also have a mind and I know what that feels like (I promise). I’m fascinated with how to bring the two perspectives together, how to approach an understanding of how one relates to the other. That means philosophy of mind, neuroscience etc. for understanding how a brain gives rise to experiences that, from the inside, feel like fundamental to reality but aren’t. It also means history, economics and most of all evolutionary psychology for understanding why the mind is the way it is and not some other way.

I suspect the to me obvious general correctness of the evolutionary (which is outside-viewish) approach to psychology is much less obvious to many others than it is to me partly because many don’t appreciate that our mental features need to be explained at all. We tend to take the architecture of the mind for granted as the only possible way a mind can work. Why do we love our children? Why do we feel sexual attraction? Fear of death? Disgust? Why do we enjoy sweet foods, praise and popularity?

The answers feel obvious but that’s only from the inside, only when we’re allowed to just assume all the intuitive knowledge that all normal people have. But that intuitive knowledge is not knowledge in a strict sense. It doesn’t actually “bottom out” at something basic even though we feel it does. We don’t know how we work, we just feel like we do because of our ability to work effectively with ourselves. It’s like confusing the ability to drive a car with understanding how a car works.

We often don’t make that distinction in everyday life. “Do you know how the printer works?” means “Are you able to operate the printer?” and not what it literally says. Similarly, in understanding the nature of something like love we could go the literary path and explore and describe it in experiential terms. We could make the reader feel they understand love: what it’s like to be in love, how it affects you, what experiences constitute it and what role it plays in your life. Or we could go the scientific route and account for how, in neurological terms, these powerful experiences can come about — or (more interestingly to me) describe the evolutionary process and pressures that bootstrapped the whole system into existence[2].

There’s a lot to explain here. Massively and highly specifically complex and organized systems and processes aren’t the obvious, inevitable result of a featureless substance called “mind” interacting with the world. That’s absurd. But it makes sense, which is our problem. If you don’t see all the explaining we have to do you aren’t thinking hard enough[3].

We can tie this back to our bad philosophical habit of reifying artifacts of mental mapping (like objects, their properties and behavior, identity and mind). It’s long interested me how examples in sci-fi and fantasy fiction demonstrate that we find it basic and easy to understand without explanation, things that in reality would be unbelievably complex or flat out impossible because they’re completely incompatible with how the physcial world actually works. For example: separating minds from bodies, shrinking or enlarging objects and creatures with no change in function, making people invisible or magically turning a thing into another thing but still having it be the “same” in the sense that it can be turned back into itself again, are all basic plot points in stories, easily understood even by children, but the opposite of simple and basic in reality. And ever since I noticed the issue it really bothers me how common it is to have laws of nature with a sense of macroscopic object identity. I don’t say all this to nitpick but to point out that what does or doesn’t require an explanation in fiction have very little to do with what is or isn’t difficult/impossible to do or explain from a scientific standpoint.

To put it all into one sentence: our intuitive sense of when we understand something and what kind of explanations actually explain things is seriously unreliable. We need the outside view to reality check our intuitions. Being open with that might put people off but that doesn’t make it wrong.

It’s a corrective

If we don’t realize that first-person, subjective sense of understanding is not at all the same as third-person, all-the-way down objective understanding — despite sharing the same word — then we’re going to be living in a tiny little universe and not even realize it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the inside view. I love that too, and I love art, music and fiction with a powerful streak of just the kind of romanticism that involves projecting feelings onto the world and then consume them in an act of communion with the creator. I adore dramatic and emotionally evocative design, architecture and ritual and I think we’ve got far too little romanticism going on in those areas today.

What is clearly wrong, in my opinion, (and I am aware this is my own sense of social standing talking), is to act all superior in staying inside the anthropocentric bubble and act as if this gives you all understanding worth having. I’m of course talking about the type of literary intellectual described by C.P. Snow in his classic The Two Cultures: somebody who considers even basic understanding of science, math or technology irrelevant to being a generally educated person, but literary history is essential.

In that vein, one of my pet peeves is the popular idea that scientists and engineers need to study the humanities to become well-rounded. I don’t disagree, and I’m myself the result of just such an initiative, but I dislike the one-sidedness of it. When the virtues of STEM are held up it tends to be because of usefulness, not importance for intellectual development. Well, for what it’s worth, it’s been tremendously important for mine (as have the humanities)[4][5]. The approaches are complementary, and you just do not get very far with only one oar.

To rant: I’m especially bothered by an air of smug superiority from those who seem to consider taking the outside view a mark of intellectual poverty and lack of cultural sophistication. It’s even often called philosophically naive(!) to subscribe to reductionist materialism[6]. That’s a longer discussion but to cut it short: one side here has a view more childlike and it ain’t mine; believing in magic or magic-like things doesn’t require sophistication at all. Virtually every illiterate premodern in history was able to do so without much difficulty. It’s simple as shit, because it sweeps under the carpet exactly the issues our minds aren’t well equipped to deal with.

I suspect this backwards snobbery exists mostly for social reasons. Outside views are considered less philosophically sophisticated because people likely to hold them tend to be less socially sophisticated. The connection isn’t an accident, I bet. Strong implicit intuitive understanding of other people makes you more socially adept and less aware of how incomplete this understanding really is. The better you are at doing something without thinking about it the less aware you become that there’s something there that requires thinking to really get to the bottom of.

To come full circle, there’s a comment on SA’s article that makes the point:

It’s not inherently incorrect grammatically [to use male/female for men/women] but it instantly has subconscious signaling that the speaker doesn’t actually interact with other people or understand gender relationships and social roles implicitly the way most people do: it implies an approach to gender and social cues derived from an outside analytical scientific study as opposed to participation and intuition. E.g. (“when seeking a mate, the males of the tribe undulate in order to display their proficiency at intercourse”).

This in turn implies a lack of “normal” social skills, a lack of confidence in ones place in social situations, and a subconscious perspective as an outsider to these rituals, all of which signal inexperience and awkwardness at best, otherness and danger at worst.

Right. Those who adopt the outside view often does do so to compensate being relatively bad at the inside view and this leads people, I believe, to also consider such philosophies and ideas to be less sophisticated. And, importantly, more threatening, which is touched upon at the end of the quote: analytical people are seen — probably correctly — as less moved by involuntary emotions of loyalty and in-the-moment empathy and therefore not as reliable as friends and allies (as discussed in Facing the Elephant). That also contributes to impopularity. Pejoratives like “cold”, “bloodless” and “clinical” is used for outside perspective views when criticized from that angle.

So even among adult intellectuals there’s a lot of high-school cliquery going on, and ideas are evaluated not just on their theoretical strengths but for reasons of fashion and popularity. Sure, you can say that’s obvious and everybody knows it, but in my book trying to stop when you notice yourself doing that is part of being a grown-up.

Implicit proselytizing

So, I’m apprehensive about the implications of the advice. It feels like telling people to give up, to acquiesce. Should you tell a missionary to not mention God or Jesus or sin or anything like that when trying to convert people (“don’t say anything to suggest you’re a Christian, people are put off by Christians“) and instead just tell them to, you know, be good? Turn the other cheek, be chaste and give to the poor? That might be nice. It might do some good. But it’s not exactly satisfying if your aim is to spread the word of God.

Nor would these moral proscriptions carry as much power by themselves as they do when presented as integral parts of a complete belief system. That’s important. The substitutions in the original post are supposed to not matter substantively and I agree that when it’s just style, you should use a plain word. But often I think it does matter because the whole package supports the individual point you want to communicate. Ideas are stronger, more convincing and more meaningful in their proper context[7]. They get watered down and become irrelevant when not hooked up to the networks of power in the mind. They need to fit in with the movers and shakers already there, or they need to smuggle some friends through with them to boost their chances of getting a foothold somewhere.

Typing this out and thinking about it over a few weeks has made me more sympathetic towards political radicals (who I in general do not like). I think I’ve hit upon something they often feel: “We don’t want to make our points in a way the squares can accept from their perspective! We want everyone else to adopt our perspective! It’s better! It’s correct!

Is what I’m saying here any different? Or is it just that I disagree with political radicals and don’t want to adopt their perspective but I do want everyone else to adopt mine? Yes, fine. Guilty. Now, I do think politics is more subjective than philosophy and science of mind and behavior, so the “it really is like this!” argument is less compelling coming from them. But it rings a little hollow when I think about it more. It’s not enough to dismiss the similarities.

My “defense” in the end is this: I’m not saying we should adopt the outside, analytical view in place of the inside, intuitive view. But we should understand that it brings insights that can’t be had from the inside and solves problems we can’t even see. And we should do the same with politically radical ideologies: not adopt them wholesale, but recognize that they form valuable complements to the status quo and can help us see things otherwise invisible.

As it is, in public life, the scientific, outside view of ourselves and our societies is underappreciated. That ought to change. Most importantly of course by granting higher social status to those who hold them… 🙂


• • •



Or whatever word you prefer. “Mechanistic” has some baggage I don’t like but so does “materialist”, “physicalist” and “naturalist”.

I think back to the “love speech” from Interstellar and shudder. It’d be funny as parody but I’m not sure it’s meant to be.

It reminds me of this quote by John von Neumann: “If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.”

I get the impression the scientific worldview is considered narrow while the humanistic one is not, even though the second is much more parochial, particularist and insular than the first (if you don’t automatically equate human affairs with the entirety of existence). That schism goes back pretty far, I guess, to a disagreement about what is meant by “the world” or “reality”. More on that in this post.

It could be because these subjects are not taught very well. If you’re just doing rote memorization of formulas and dreary chemical naming conventions etc. it won’t be particularly mind-expanding. It might have been for me because I was educated in math and engineering while also reading a lot of popular science, which is heavy on the conceptual stuff and lighter on formulas.

It is of course true that there are unsophisticated versions too. “It’s all just atoms maaaaaaan” isn’t any more profound than the version with “spirit” in it, if just parroted without appreciation for the consequences or awareness of the objections. But trying to properly explain human beings and our place in the cosmos in scientific terms is a task of much greater complexity and in need of so much greater sophistication that doing so in humanistic terms that merely feel convincing from within a human mind (but you can’t escape the human mind!!! Blah blah yes I’m aware) — as the history of religions and myths demonstrates.

The “naive” label can also be because materialist and reductionist philosophy per se can easily be confused for the kind of unexamined scientific realism that philosophically uninterested scientists and science enthusiasts easily acquire. But they are not the same.

I will readily admit that it’s annoying when people you don’t share a worldview with attempt to impose theirs by using their own terminology. It’s a pickle and I wish we had better ways to navigate these disagreements. This post is more an excuse to vent some frustrations than it is rhetorical advice.

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12 thoughts on “In Favor of Sometimes Sounding Like a Robot

  1. I think I’m more inclined to worry about people focusing too much on the outside view and forgetting about the inside view. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who doesn’t think everyone studying some math and science is important but does think everyone studying humanities is important, and I have at least seen people argue that math is important for intellectual development, and the general impression I have is that things that aren’t mathematically or scientifically rigorous are taken less seriously. But perhaps this is just because I tend to associate with STEMmy people and perhaps society as a whole is too inside view-ish.

    (Also, the part about intellectual development seems unconvincing to me since my inclination is to think of “intellectual development” as what people say when they can’t think of a better reason to teach a subject.)

    On the other hand, typical people probably have an outside view of groups that are either outside of society (other cultures) or minorities within the society (race, neurodivergence, LGBT, weird hobbies/interests/subcultures, etc.), which means in those cases, society is too biased towards an outside view and needs to be reminded/informed of the inside view. (I suspect this is why I’ve seen people object specifically to “females” while not saying anything about “males”.)

    Regarding convincing other people: A Christian phrasing their beliefs in secular language might not convert people to Christianity… but they might convince me of *something*, whereas if they’re talking about God and Jesus and sin, then I’m probably going to immediately assume that they’re starting from beliefs I consider completely wrong, so I’m not going to pay much attention to what they have to say. I’d imagine probably something similar is true for rationalists convincing people not inclined towards rationality. On the other hand, perhaps they would convince someone who’s already sort of religious or inclined towards religion, and perhaps a rationalist would convince someone who’s sort of a rationalist, so perhaps there’s a tradeoff here between convincing more people of something vs. getting a few people completely to your side.

    (Thinking about when I might pay attention to someone talking about God or sin or whatever… I think maybe if I was convinced they weren’t taking those concepts for granted and not fully buying into them themselves. Something along the lines of a rationalist steelman of the concept, or an outsider’s description. It’s still unlikely to convert me, though.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a very similar reaction to the referenced SSC post. Easily digestible, human sounding language naturally slides people into the mindset that everyone’s talking about simple, obvious, mutually-accepted ideas. We’re almost never talking about simple, obvious, mutually-accepted ideas.

    Avoiding evil robot verbiage might increase your audience’s comfort level and help you gain acceptance. But that might come at the cost of never realizing your basic assumptions differ in ways that prevent clear communication.


    This line of yours beautifully sums up so many things I’m trying to wrap my head around and what I’m fumblingly trying to express to friends and family almost constantly these days:

    “We need to appreciate that looking at the world, and at ourselves, specifically from inside a human consciousness is going to yield a grossly distorted picture. We need to compensate for that by carefully examining and fencing off our assumptions and intuitions, and looking suspiciously at the building blocks of own our mental architecture.”

    Thank you for that bit of profound, precise poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not convinced that taking an outside view fixes that, though. It might just replace those simple, obvious ideas with ideas that are simple and obvious in a different way, replace the bad assumptions of the inside view with bad assumptions of the outside view; that the inside view may be distorted, but the outside view is also distorted, just in a different way. And since people tend to think that the outside view is “smarter” and “more rational”, they’ll think *all* disagreements between the inside and outside views are distortions of the inside view even if some of them are actually distortions of the outside view (or of both views).


      1. This is probably off topic to what I said that you were reacting to….

        I think that we experience everything we experience from inside a human consciousness and that we never have direct, unfiltered access to reality.

        If that’s accurate, then the inside view is the only thing we ever have access to and all distortions in human thought and speech result from an inside view.

        If there was some way to achieve an actual outside view (which I suggest is currently impossible and perhaps always will be), it seems to me it would be free from distortion by definition.

        Also, I would suggest that if we indeed only have access to an inside view, it seems likely (to me) that doing cognitive work to approximate an outside view must certainly be underrepresented in most discourse.

        It takes effort. It feels unnatural.

        Making decisions and reacting to things unreflectively based on emotion comes verrrrry easily to everyone (including, of course, outside view proponents).


        1. > If that’s accurate, then the inside view is the only thing we ever have access to and all distortions in human thought and speech result from an inside view.

          > to achieve an actual outside view (which I suggest is currently impossible and perhaps always will be)

          …I think these support my point, though. If an actual outside view is impossible, then what robotic language (and, more generally, messages that we should prefer an outside view) will encourage isn’t an actual outside view; it’s what people think is an outside view, and what people think is an outside view may very well be distorted by the inside view. (Likely distortions include taking things that are correctives to an inside view too far… which likely includes the corrective “the inside view is sometimes wrong”. Also related: ) And I don’t think that this is underrepresented in discourse.

          (Also, while an outside view might not be distorted, it will be incomplete, or at least a human approximation of an outside view will be. In particular, the inner workings of human brains are both super important and mostly not visible with today’s technology, and even if they were, it would take a lot of effort to decode what was actually going on. If we try to fill in those details, how we fill them in is necessarily going to be influenced by something that could be wrong. Inside view might not always be accurate, but I think for many aspects of human brains it’s the best thing we have.)


          1. Seems like we’re using “inside view”, “outside view” and “robotic language” differently.

            Also, I’m probably accidentally switching between different meanings for these as I think out loud about them, which probably isn’t helping us understand each other.

            I’ll try to pin down what I’m talking about.

            Inside view (this is what I interpret you to be advocating as the most useful perspective): What one thinks and feels is correct/true without examining how one’s own experiences/emotions/biases are inevitably distorting the picture.

            Outside view: Impossible to achieve. A purely theoretical, literally unbiased view of reality/facts. I believe there is a one actual, concrete, physical reality that we all share, but no one has direct access to it. This theoretical outside view would be of this reality.

            What I advocate (and interpret you to be pushing back against as a more distorted perspective): A consciously adjusted version of one’s default inside view. Achieved (attempted?) by using cognitive effort to remain aware that what feels correct/true is heavily distorted by emotion and personal experience and to think about how the theoretical outside view might differ from a natural, easy, unquestioned inside view.

            Robotic language: choosing words carefully and trying to avoid words loaded with emotion, connotation, subjectivity, controversy. Also, avoiding common terms that are used very flexibly.

            Example: For me, until recently, the phrase “middle-class” always seemed like an easy to grasp concept that is very useful in discussing the economic well being of a nation’s citizens. I used to use it a lot (almost all Americans discussing politics use it a lot.)

            Recently, I had a disagreement with a close friend the other day where what he was saying seemed ridiculous. I ended up reading the wikipedia page for “Middle class.” Plot twist: it has *no* widely accepted definition. It tends to amorphously bend towards whatever people want it to mean to suit their politics.

            If you substitute a more “robotic” combination of words, you are going to be understood more accurately than if you say “middle class.”

            For example, my idea if middle class is something like “non-rich people who are economically secure.” Other people’s idea of middle class is more like “the socioeconomic group more privileged and powerful than the working class and less privileged and powerful than the ruling class”. (And there are a million other ways of thinking about it.) If there was a broadly accepted definition, you could just say I’m using the word incorrectly, but there is not.

            If I want to talk to someone on the internet about the portion of the population that is economically secure but not rich, I’d be ill-advised to use the term “middle-class” without attempting to define what I mean by it or confirming they share my definition. And if someone on the internet wants to talk to me about power and privilege they would be ill-advised to use the word term “middle-class” without attempting to define what they mean by it.

            If I skip to the substituted robotic words “non-rich people who are economically secure.” , it’s still far from perfect (what does rich mean? what does economically secure mean?) but we’re already closer to talking about the same thing (relative economic security … not relative social status.)


          2. I think how I’m using them:

            Inside view ≈ personal experience, introspection, and direct observation of one’s thoughts, emotions, and senses

            Outside view ≈ logic, science, and observation of things one isn’t personally involved in; generally things that can (in principle) be verified independently by another human

            I think it’s possible to do introspection in ways that try to correct for biases and it’s possible to do explicit reasoning and science in ways that are biased (though, of course, it’s also possible to do inside view things in ways that are biased and outside view things in ways that are relatively unbiased; that is, I don’t think inside vs. outside view necessarily means anything about whether it’s biased).

            I think that both give evidence about what actual reality (what you’re calling the “outside view”) is like, and each gives some evidence that’s harder to get from the other view. My view isn’t so much “trust the inside view” as it is “don’t always 100% trust the outside view and 100% distrust the inside view”. If the outside view and inside view seem to contradict, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that this proves the inside view is wrong (though in some cases the inside view *is* wrong); consider that maybe your outside view evidence is incomplete or misleading, and that either the inside view might be correct or the truth might be something even more complicated than the obvious outside view or obvious inside view explanation. (In particular, I think in psychology the outside view isn’t that good yet and we have a lot of untapped inside view potential. Probably in other human-related fields as well. I don’t think inside view stuff is going to lead to significant new insights in physics or chemistry.)

            I think of “robotic language” as more like, pretending we’re a different species studying humans, and I’m not convinced that we could figure out everything that way that we could figure out from the inside view. (I think if biologists could just ask animals what they were feeling, they could learn new information.) And getting members of the general public (mostly not trained scientists) to try to reason as if they were biologists studying human behavior probably isn’t going to get them to an accurate, unbiased view. I think a lot of the examples in the original SSC article fit that, your example not so much.

            Another issue is that the things we care about are generally expressed in inside view terms, and making sure that the outside view concepts actually correspond to the inside-view things you care about is harder than people think. If, using your example, you have some intuition about the middle class, but then you find some studies about economically secure but not rich people that seem to show that your intuition is wrong… it *could* be that your intuition is right, but the group your intuition is about isn’t “economically secure but not rich people”.


  3. For some reason, I can’t reply in the earlier thread, chridd.

    Thanks for engaging, I don’t get to dig in to these ideas that I find so fascinating with friends and family nearly as much as I’d like.

    Everything you’re saying is well reasoned and I probably veered farther from the spirit and content of the original SSC post and John Nerst’s response than you have. My rambling about robotic language is probably especially off point. So, tip-o-the-cap and apologies if I’ve been annoyingly lazy in my thought and expression.

    I agree with almost everything you’re saying and maybe whatever we still may differ on is largely semantic but I’ve got more questions about your thinking on this, if you’re still enjoying the conversation…

    To avoid continuously qualifying my remarks, I’m going to try to use what I believe to be your definitions of “inside view” and “outside view.”

    Why is “logic” in your outside view category?

    You suggested (and I agree) that it’s possible “to do introspection in ways that try to correct for biases”. That sounds like a process that would rely very heavily on logic (maybe even exclusively.) To me, “logic” seems equally at home in inside view and outside view.

    Can you give an example of science that is more biased than “personal experience, introspection, and direct observation of one’s thoughts, emotions, and senses”?

    Maybe I’m guilty of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, but I think if something isn’t *at least* as unbiased as personal experience and careful introspection then it doesn’t qualify as science and could be easily be exposed as non-science by the application of actual science. I acknowledge that humans attempting to use science can never totally escape bias. So I’m just saying I think “real” science is tied for first with the least biased examples of inside view.

    It seems like people relying on inside view might have trouble exposing biased “science” to other people with differing inside views.

    This leads me to an area where I think outside view has a clear advantage over inside view: trying to bridge the gap between inside views through communication. (And it’s possible you don’t even disagree with this, because I know you’re not anti-outside view.)

    Person A has their inside view. Person B has their inside view. If they disagree about “facts” or “reality,” how can they even discuss it without appealing to outside view? Extend this to groups with significantly differing worldviews trying to get along with each other and make group decisions… I don’t see a way around using outside view.

    If person A has some insight into person B’s inside view, they’ll be more able to wield an outside view persuasively. But gaining insight into person B’s inside view would seem to involve person A attempting to set aside their own inside view. Which seems like it would be a sort of outside view. Although, it seems like I may have stretched my understanding of your outside view concept past the breaking point.

    Also, please don’t get me wrong, I love inside view. People’s experiences and emotions are hugely important things to consider when groups with significantly differing worldviews are trying to get along with each other and make group decisions…

    And outside view certainly has limits.

    If you can’t use outside view to define something and you can’t measure it mathematically or scientifically should you just ignore it and leave it out of your decision making? Of course not.

    Dignity, respect, justice… thing like that… these may be undefinable but they’re hugely important and meaningful nonetheless.

    Anyway, hopefully you stopped reading a long time ago if you’re over it already. Thanks again!


    1. There’s a limit to how deep comments can be nested; generally people reply to the deepest comment they can reply to.

      To clarify even more… I’m thinking of “outside view” as an ordinary (still imperfect) human-level intelligence that happens to be outside the situation in question. So I’m including flawed attempts at science as outside view—someone outside the situation can still do science badly; and I’m including logic as outside view because someone outside the situation can do reasoning just as easily as someone inside the situation (although, yes, logic with inside-view premises is at least partially inside-view). When dealing with things that are universal or nearly-universal among humans, actually being outside the situation isn’t practical, but we can pretend that we don’t know stuff that seems obvious and re-derive or re-experiment… but that means that we don’t have as much information as if we included the inside-view stuff, because there’s stuff we haven’t yet figured out how to test scientifically.

      The thing I’m most concerned about isn’t so much about individual facts or studies being wrong, but about information that’s missing (that we haven’t yet studied) and how that affects the conclusions and decisions we make based on that data; and what we do and don’t have good outside-view information about isn’t random, because some things are harder to measure (e.g., emotions), which means conclusions could be biased even if the data isn’t. The simplest model or conclusion that fits the outside-view data that we have might not be accurate, and inside-view information might be what clues us into that fact. Preferring the outside view could also make easily-measurable and easy-to-reason-about things seem more relevant, and result in prioritizing desires that are easily-measurable to those that are harder to measure.

      A couple concrete examples of things where I think that what I’d consider an outside-view focus causes problems:

      1. Social media engagement: Social media companies making decisions based on things like how many people view a post or video, how long they spend on the site, how many comments a thing gets, etc. These things are all fairly easy for the company to measure directly. It matters to users whether they’re actually enjoying their time on the site vs. feeling like they have to or being addicted or getting harassed or getting into angry discussions. Which of those things is happening is harder to measure, but might be more obvious from the inside view of the site’s users. If you prefer using the outside view, you might end up concluding that some feature that increases objective engagement metrics is good, even if it’s actually causing problems that are harder to measure.

      (Also, people at the company probably actually care about something that’s easy to measure: profits… and they can get ad revenue from people being addicted or arguing or whatever. So caring too much about the outside view prioritizes the company’s desire over the users’ desires, and the company can claim, “Look, we’re giving users what they want, and here’s the numbers to prove it”, and the users don’t have that kind of data to argue against them.)

      2. Autism treatment: There are autism treatments that focus on making the autistic person look normal, which includes things like forcing them to give eye contact or stopping them from stimming. At least some autistic people who have been subjected to these treatments say that they make it harder to function and are unpleasant, and what they really need is help functioning *as autistic people*, rather than people trying to make them not autistic. Behavior like eye contact and stimming is something that’s easy to see from the outside, and they can point to autistic people they’ve gotten to give eye contact and not stim and say, “look, they’re not stimming, they’re cured”, and it takes the inside view of the autistic person to see that they’re actually on the verge of burnout and can’t continue living like that and/or would hate their life if they did.


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