Why are people so bad at reasoning? For the same reason they’re so bad at letting poisonous spiders walk all over their face without freaking out. Both “skills” are really bad ideas, most of the people who tried them died in the process, so evolution removed those genes from the population, and successful cultures stigmatized them enough to give people an internalized fear of even trying.

I'm really glad that I read this, and to be honest, a little disturbed by it. I was left with the sense that it was important knowledge that seemed to be undervalued / wasn't something I'd been previously exposed to.

Summary of why this is a worthwhile read for people interested in EA:

  • EA involves or at least seems intertwined with heavy use of rationality to best identify the problems to solve and to best solve them.
  • This post by Scott Alexander presents a compelling case of some of the downsides of rationality.
  • It also presents a case for cultural evolution being a, or the, key force for human progress.
  • In the pursuit of doing as much good as possible, with the assistance of rationality, it seems useful for EAs and the EA community to have an understanding of the historical challenges with rationality, as well as the importance of cultural evolution to human progress over the long-term future.

For what it's worth, I still have lots of open questions. But it seems like this book, and the review, both contain potentially important and under-discussed ideas.




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Thanks for posting this. Posts introducing books or other bodies of work not explicitly about EA or an EA cause area, but that introduce or explain relevant ideas from disparate disciplines, seem valuable and I would like to see more.

See also this follow-up for extended quotes:

In 1971, the anthropologist David Boyd was living in the New Guinea village of Irakia, and observed intergroup competition via prestige-biased group transmission. Concerned about their low prestige and weak pig production, the senior men of Irakia convened a series of meetings to determine how to improve their situation. Numerous suggestions were proposed for raising their pig production but after a long process of consensus building the senior men of the village decided to follow a suggestion made by a prestigious clan-leader who proposed that they “must follow the Fore’” and adopt their pig-related husbandry practices, rituals, and other institutions. The Fore’ were a large and successful ethnic group in the region, who were renowned for their pig production. The following practices, beliefs, rules, and goals were copied from the Fore’, and announced at the next general meeting of the community:
1) All villagers must sing, dance and play flutes for their pigs. This ritual causes the pigs to grow faster and bigger. At feasts, the pigs should be fed first from the oven. People are fed second.
2) Pigs should not be killed for breaking into another’s garden. The pig’s owner must assist the owner of the garden in repairing the fence. Disputes will be resolved following the dispute resolution procedure used among the Fore’.
3) Sending pigs to other villages is tabooed, except for the official festival feast.
4) Women should take better care of the pigs, and feed them more food. To find extra time for this, women should spend less time gossiping.
5) Men must plant more sweet potatoes for the women to feed to the pigs, and should not depart for wage labor in distant towns until the pigs have grown to a certain size.
The first two items were implemented immediately at a ritual feast. David stayed in the village long enough to verify that the villagers did adopt the other practices, and that their pig production did increase in the short term, though unfortunately we don’t know what happened in the long-run.

For a different take on the consequences of being "rational", I would highly recommend James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. The book summary of SSC is pretty good, but when he gives his opinion on the book he seems to have missed the point of the book entirely.


What do you think is the point of the book that SSC missed?

It is most apparent in this piece of the review:

He also points out that Tanzanian natives using their traditional farming practices were more productive than European colonists using scientific farming. I’ve had to listen to so many people talk about how “we must respect native people’s different ways of knowing” and “native agriculturalists have a profound respect for the earth that goes beyond logocentric Western ideals” and nobody had ever bothered to tell me before that they actually produced more crops per acre, at least some of the time. That would have put all of the other stuff in a pretty different light.

He remains focused on the expected crops per acre, even though every case study in the book illustrates that such a single variable doesn't encompass the multitude of uses that the acre in question has. I don't think I could describe it better than Reddit user u/TheHiveMindSpeaketh does:

The point of the book is not to point and laugh at the technocrats who failed to squeeze the most X out of Y because they didn't listen to the noble savages. The point is that 'how do we squeeze the most X out of Y' is a bad way to position yourself in relation to your surroundings. The point is that technocrats often succeed in squeezing more X out of Y over a relevant period of time via their techniques, but that treating a forest like a timber-maximizer is already missing the [..] point because a forest is also a home for woodland creatures, and a source for medicinal herbs and fruits and berries, and a nice place to take a hike and stare at the stars. The point is that the mistake was not made at the level of what was implemented, the mistake was made at the level of what was valued, and the implementation mistake was an inevitable downstream consequence of that. The point is that even if traditional Tanzanian farming methods didn't produce more crops per acre, they might still be preferable, because they are more sustainable or less time-intensive or etc, but that these benefits become unintelligible to the technocrat who has already committed to a value system where land is only judged by its yield per acre.

I personally think this is an important question for EA's to grapple with: can we reason abstractly about doing good without this abstraction causing mistakes at the level of what to value. Scott's technocrats surely did not think they were making that mistake, but they were. If we believe that we are somehow different, that is kind of arrogant.

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