Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Scott Alexander's New Blog

Scott Alexander is back to blogging, at Substack, under his real name. Free so far. He says the new blog is about rta, and old Indo-European root word:

The dictionary defines ṛta as "order", "truth", or "rule", but I think of it as the intersection of all these concepts, a sort of hidden node at the center of art and harmony and rationality and the rest. What are the laws of thought? How do they reveal themselves, at every level, from the flow of electricity through the brain to the flow of money through the global economy? How can we cleave to them more closely, for our own good and the good of generations still to come?

In practice, articles here tend to focus on reasoning, science, psychiatry, medicine, ethics, genetics, AI, economics and politics. The political posts sometimes stray into choppy waters, and I have immense sympathy for people who are sick of that and prefer to pass. 

But consider this picture:

The top and bottom chess sets in this picture are exactly the same color. Download it and check on Paint or Photoshop if you don't believe me. We use "as different as black and white" to mean obviously, undeniably different. But in fact a slightly different context can confuse our brains so completely that we mistake white for black and vice versa. I believe the same laws of thought apply in the frontal lobe as in the visual cortex. The same forces that transform gray chess sets to white or black, outside our conscious control or comprehension, influence how we think about policies, coalitions, and principles, making them appear self-evidently good or viciously evil. I think this is the century where we'll either learn to understand and deal with our cognitive biases, or else all kill each other.


David said...

I wonder if the tromp d'oeil in the picture really has to do with our learned biases and expectations, or if it's subtler than that and has to do more with skilled use of how we look at pictures. After all, if I was sitting at a table, and there was a chess set laid out with both sides painted gray, I think that's what I'd see--my brain wouldn't turn them into white and black.

G. Verloren said...


We unintentionally deceive ourselves to some degree through bias and expectation, but other people also purposefully work to distort our perceptions.

Our society fundamentally is built upon predation - we incentivize deception; we incentivize manipulation; we incentivize exploiting other people's biases and expectation to achieve a desired outcome. We're not getting rid of our cognitive failings any time soon, because they're the tool that unscrupulous parties use to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Our economy's most basic day to day interactions depend overwhelmingly on cheap tricks and immoral tactics that are so common and pervasive as to be blindly accepted as "normal" and "necessary".

Your comment gets at the edges of this issue - no one looking at an actual chess set with both sides painted the same shade of gray is realistically going to confuse the two for being black and white. It's only when someone goes to the effort of obfuscating the truth through trickery that such things happen.

The very act of "pointing out the illusion" is often itself an illusion - a way to manipulate people into distrusting themselves, and instead trusting in the sage advice of the person ever so "benevolently" revealing an illusion they themselves crafted. "I tricked you, so don't trust yourself and instead trust me!"

I'm far less afraid of my own biases, and far more afraid of bad actors who pay an inordinate amount of attention to my biases because they want to exploit them.

David said...


"The very act of "pointing out the illusion" is often itself an illusion - a way to manipulate people into distrusting themselves, and instead trusting in the sage advice of the person ever so "benevolently" revealing an illusion they themselves crafted."

I don't share your super-dark view of the fundamentals of our society, but I think your sentence I've quoted expresses well what I was thinking about Scott Alexander's post.

Some of our divisions are based on illusion, presumption, and fantasy. Yes, there is indeed an element of Michael Anton-like delusion. But there's also some real enmity about real issues, many of them so fundamental that hostility is a not unreasonable response to division over them.

Here, I think, is a clear-eyed antidote to Alexander's mushy just-change-your-perspectivism: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/27/opinion/how-to-defeat-americas-homegrown-insurgency.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

Katya said...

Speaking as an artist, I think it is disingenuous to murk up the perceptions of the eye/brain and the intellect.

My father taught a basic drawing class at Harvard for decades, dealing with the amusingly visually ignorant and their egos. The human brain has MANY, MANY shortcuts for dealing with the wealth of inputted visual information.

For example, if you ask someone to draw the human eye, most will draw a pair of sideways parenthetical marks with a circle with a dot in the center to represent an iris and pupil. But that is an idea of an eye, not what an eye looks like (the iris is almost never seen as a circle, the human eyelids occlude circle segments, as if cut off by a pair of chords).

"Failings" or "simplifications" by the human eye/brain and its perceptions are not directly analogous to moral or factual ambiguities.