Monday, January 25, 2021

Good Minds Resist Generalizing

Categorization is a natural and helpful way to navigate the world. Yet taken to an extreme it leads to very poor conclusions. Figuring out when the process is benign and helpful versus when it is harmful and nonsensical is high art--there such a fine line between essential black-and-white thinking and destructive stereotyping. 

That is one of my takeaways from listening to Kevin Dutton on The Michael Shermer Show this morning on my drive to work. I might summarize the argument as a distinction between a wise-thinking skeptic and a poor-reasoning lizard brain. 

The lizard brain wants quick, straightforward answers that cleanly divide the world into two dichotomies. It wants jointly exhaustive (all things of this type are found in this model) and mutually exclusive (all things are each in exactly one or the other of the categories). That is not how the world works of course. 

Wise-thinking skeptics adjust their conclusions and update their priors. They allow more latitude for exceptions when the stakes are higher as well as when the evidence is less clear. Consider this graphically:

The lizard brain operates along the red line increasingly generalizing for ever-more important the subject. The wise skeptic is the inverse resisting generalization increasingly as importance rises as shown in the blue line. Notice how the skeptic is not linear as well. For him magnitude matters.

I promise to try to keep this in mind as I go about thinking. 

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