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People are Wrong then Ignore Criticism

http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1820#comment-110439

In my linked comment, I specifically replied to an important idea Scott Aaronson had put in bold. He himself identified it as a key idea of his, and I quoted it for clarity. I then pointed out a (large) problem with it.

I also brought up how his approach was in conflict with a book (The Beginning of Infinity) which he's familiar with and thinks he understands, likes and agrees with. This way he can't just be like, "Some commenter on my blog disagrees with me, who cares?" (which would be irrational because it's not truth-seeking. If the commenter is right, he never finds out and changes his mind). Even if he doesn't care about someone disagreeing with him that his blogs posts weren't good enough to persuade, I brought up a conflict between two of his own ideas. Most arguments bring up a conflict between an idea you have and an idea I have, and if you don't care about my idea maybe you ignore this conflict of ideas. But when an argument points out a conflict between two ideas of one person, that's harder for him to ignore. So I was working around a common issue.

I made my comment extra interesting for Scott Aaronson by replying specifically to what he emphasized in bold as a key point (and pointing out how his key point was wrong!), and by bringing up a conflict with another idea of his own.

I received no answer. Scott Aaronson did continue posting plenty more in the discussion after my comment. Some people who agree with Scott Aaronson also continued discussing, and my argument applied to them too (the main part, maybe not The Beginning of Infinity aspect, though they could wonder how and why they are coming in conflict with that book and if maybe the book could have a good point or at least a point worth refuting).

How can/should this problem of non-answers be dealt with? (The issue also comes up in my Paths Forward essay, which has some answers.)

Fundamentally I think a lot of people have no real answer to the question, "If you're mistaken, how will you learn better?" And since they have no methods set up for error correction, it's really hard to do anything about any of their mistakes. That is what irrationality is.

(BTW it's a pattern, I've posted several other comments which also went unanswered.)

(Also, to be clear, I don't really mean to pick on Scott Aaronson in particular. He's just a convenient recent typical example. Alex Epstein did similar, as have others. I see these as pervasive problems, not problems with a few bad apples. In comparison to his peers and colleagues, I don't think Scott Aaronson is particularly bad about the issues I'm criticizing here.)

I also tried emailing Scott Aaronson who I've spoken with a bit in the past. I brought up a different topic there, which is that I disagree with his approach to climate change issues. I wondered if he was open to debate and criticized his approach of saying the debate was already over. Declaring a debate already over is a common irrational approach that blocks off any further learning. About the debate already being over, he wrote: "Within physics and chemistry and climatology, the people who think anthropogenic climate change exists and is a serious problem have won the argument—but the news of their intellectual victory hasn’t yet spread..." Then true to the idea of the debate being finished, as you'll see below, he didn't want to address criticisms of his position.

He replied to me to assert he was open to debate while subtly blowing me off, then didn't respond to some questions I sent him in reply. I think he's more interested in convincing himself that he's rational – which required dealing with a direction question about his openness to debate – than he is interested in actually discussing the issues.

After some questions, I concluded my reply, "If you don't wish to answer all of these questions, could you tell me where to get answers to my satisfaction which would persuade me about the climate consensus and related issues? (If there is nowhere, what do you suggest?)"

He didn't answer that either. When people don't answer something like that, isn't it disturbing? He says climate change is a settled debate, but he won't answer questions about it, and he won't even refer people to anywhere they can get their doubts answered. (Presumably because there actually isn't anywhere, which means the debate isn't actually settled in a reasonable way. Which is an important enough problem with his side's "victory" on the issue that he ought to have some comment.)

This is a common problem where people are more interested in the social role of a rational intellectual than truth-seeking discussion. They're more interested in feeling smart than being smart. They're more interested in self-image than action. They care about popular opinion and socialized legitimized status, and only feel much need to address arguments with some kind of (social) authority behind them. They look at the source of ideas and then wonder whether, socially, they can get away with ignoring the ideas (ignoring arguments is something they seem to treat as desirable and try to maximize).

It's not about, "Have I already written an answer to this argument? Has someone else written an answer to it that I can endorse? If yes, I'll give a link/cite. If no, maybe I or someone else better write something." That'd be rational but few people think that way.

Instead it's about, "If I don't answer this, will other people think it was a serious argument I should have answered? Am I expected to answer it? Do I have to answer it to protect my social status? Do I have any excuses for not engaging with the argument that most people (weighted by their status/authority) will accept?"

What is to be done about these problems?

I followed up with Scott Aaronson to check if maybe he was on vacation or something. I explained I was trying not to misinterpret. It seemed like he had claimed to be open to debate, then immediately acted the opposite way. But silence is ambiguous, so I wanted to clarify what was happening and not misinterpret. He replied clarifying (indirectly) that he isn't open to debate and doesn't care about answering my questions or criticisms.

I replied explaining why that's a bad idea, and he ignored me. I also showed him my Paths Forward essay which covers these issues, and he didn't want to answer that either.

One thing I said to Scott Aaronson is that no one ever won the climate change debate against me. So in what sense is the debate concluded? Do I not count? He replied that no one had ever won it against him either. I believe him. But isn't this a great opportunity to discuss? At least one of us would learn a lot. At least one of us could lose the debate and learn better. Doesn't it make tons of sense to get people on both sides who've had lots of debates, and won all of them, and then have them debate? Then some people will lose their undefeated streaks and change their minds, that'd be awesome.

(It'd be tricky though because people usually debate too irrationally for the debate or discussion to actually resolve disagreements or reach a conclusion. That's another problem that needs addressing.)

I'm open to discussing it with Scott Aaronson or anyone else. I take on all comers and am undefeated about this particular issue (global warming). Scott Aaronson on the other hand achieves his undefeated status by ignoring critics like myself. He implied symmetry, but actually my undefeated status is a badge of honor, while his is a badge of irrational evasion. I see a great opportunity for learning, but he's too busy being a professor or "intellectual" or whatever to spend his time engaging with criticism.

(No doubt he will claim it's a matter of priorities. So, there's this climate consensus but no one prioritizes answering criticism? If Scott Aaronson wanted to refer me to something he already wrote, or someone else wrote and he endorsed, or another person who'd answer questions/criticism, that'd be fine as long as there is some way I can follow up if the thing he refers me to is mistaken. I want answers, but I don't care if they come from another person or are pre-written or whatever, as long as they are actually answers. He claims he doesn't have time to give answers, but why aren't there any answers for him to refer me to? Isn't that a huge problem with his side of the debate? But he doesn't approach things this way, instead he's content to simply block criticism with no followups or answers, so that even if I'm right he never ever finds out.)

What is to be done when respected "intellectuals" evade intellectual challenges, and ignore real intellectuals?

And, by the way, I'm not some completely random nobody to Scott Aaronson. I don't think it would matter if I was. But for example, he's written to me in the past at different times that, "I basically agree with your analysis" and "Thanks so much for the Godwin ref -- I'll take a look!" But despite recognizing some things I said as good, he still won't engage in a serious discussion or deal with criticism or hard questions from me.

If you won't even consider criticism from people with a track record of good analysis and good references (in your opinion), then ... what the fuck? What else could you want from a potential discussion partner than some previous discussion that you think went well? What are people supposed to do to get his attention? Get a PhD or otherwise get socially sanctioned as having authority? What a hoop to jump through! One that many of best people will not want to jump through. If that's how it works, he's blocking criticism from many of the best people. (And if it works some other way instead of that cultural default, then he'd need to advertise that somewhere. He'd need to tell people his criteria. But he doesn't, implying he does use the cultural default social-authority approach for allocating his attention.)

There is a legitimate concern that people overestimate how good their points are. If someone thinks they have amazing ideas and contacts you, they could easily be wrong. It could be time consuming to explain it all to them. But I don't think that's what's happening here, and if it was he's handling it wrong. (I don't think it's happening from his perspective because I have a demonstrated past ability to say things I think are good points and have him agree that they are good points. Also, I focused on asking questions rather than making bold claims. It's way harder to go wrong with overestimating your knowledge when you ask questions.)

If it was what was happening, he should simply state that he thinks that is the situation (I'm overestimating my knowledge) and link to something explaining the issue that I could learn from. But he doesn't handle it anything like that. He handles things to block off future progress, block off resolving disagreements, block off error correction, rather than allow any paths forward.

Why don't people handle stuff so there is a way forward, a way for progress to happen, a way for disagreements to actually get resolved instead of lasting forever? Why do they block off problem solving? What is to be done about this?

Elliot Temple on July 4, 2014

Comments (2)

Clarifying question on Scott's motive

first you say this:

> He replied to me to assert he was open to debate while subtly blowing me off, then didn't respond to some questions I sent him in reply. I think he's more interested in convincing himself that he's rational – which required dealing with a direction question about his openness to debate – than he is interested in actually discussing the issues.


then you say this:

> Instead it's about, "If I don't answer this, will other people think it was a serious argument I should have answered? Am I expected to answer it? Do I have to answer it to protect my social status? Do I have any excuses for not engaging with the argument that most people (weighted by their status/authority) will accept?"


It seems to me that the first thing contradicts the second thing. If they are compatible, how exactly are they compatible?

Rami at 3:38 PM on July 14, 2014 | #2317
Convincing other people he's rational, and convincing himself, work largely the same way. Cuz social issues factor heavily into how he thinks about it. Like it's not really convincing ppl he's rational that's the issue, it's whether he thinks *they ought to think* he's rational more than whether they do think it. And he judges that basically by whether he thinks he's rational. Which he judges in a social way.

People should not be second handed in how they think about rationality. But often are. Yes it's a mess.

Elliot at 5:59 PM on July 14, 2014 | #2318

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)