You Have A Terrible Track Record In Guessing My Motives


13 hr ago 76 73

Blogging is an odd parasocial relationship: your readers know a vague outline of your life, plus every detail of your opinions. It's natural for readers to connect the two, and come up with some explanation for why X thing that happened in your life makes you write about Y. These readers are always wrong.

When I moved to the Bay Area, people would comment "you only think that because you live in the Bay Area bubble". They would say this about posts I wrote before I moved to the Bay and queued to post later. They would say this about posts expressing opinions I have held for my entire life. It didn't matter. These readers knew one thing about me, and they were convinced they had deep insight into my psychology.

When I was younger, I called myself asexual. People were sure this meant I had no interest in any relationship, and reinterpreted every detail of my views on dating, fertility, feminism, children, etc in that light. I actually like romantic relationships as much as anyone else, and am in a very satisfying one, and hope to one day have children. I just meant I don't get pleasure from literal PIV sex. This confused enough people that I've mostly stopped using the word. But people are still sure their misunderstood version of it explains everything about me.

Now I'm on Substack. A few weeks ago I published a spate of culture war posts. Readers commented that I was only delving into the culture wars, or only being un-nuanced about the culture wars, because of Substack or financial incentives or something. I wrote mostly-complete drafts of those posts last year. I didn't publish them then, first because the George Floyd protests shook everything up, later because my blog shut down, and finally because I wanted some time to breathe before getting everyone angry at me again. Still, lots of people had great speculation about how different aspects of being on Substack influenced parts of those posts which were entirely present in the original draft.

I wish I could remember all the times this has happened. It's been really striking. Just as economists have predicted fifty of the last ten recessions, so my readers have caught fifty of the last ten times my life experiences have affected my writing. Having the experience again and again is one reason I'm so wary of bulverism and bias arguments, where people explain away other people's positions by facets of their lives, suspected motives, etc. While this should be possible in principle, I can't stress enough that at least in my case, everyone has been terrible at it.

This is the sin of pareidolia, or premature pattern-matching. Goodness knows we're all bad at this all the time for everything. But it feels especially true with our ability to explain away other people's opinions and emotions. I would naively expect that people would err equally on both sides of this, some people underestimating their ability to psychoanalyze others, other people overestimating it. Maybe this is still true; if someone doubted a true connection, or failed to see a pattern they should have seen, how would I know? All I can say is that I have very rarely found anyone to be insightful in this area (including trained psychoanalysts trying to impress me with their insight), and I have seen people get false positives again and again and again.

This is one reason I'm against bias arguments, against dog-whistle arguments, and skeptical of actual literal psychoanalysis. I wish I could convince other people of this, but there's no shortcut to writing a blog, telling people about your personal life, and then letting them all make wildly incorrect inferences.

76 73

So I should re-read all your previous blog posts with this in mind? :)

Learning to understand this is arguably a reason everyone should spend some time pretending to be a different person online.

This is a good thing to do, except I worry that with the rate at which the private becomes public being as high as it is, eventually such things will stick to you.

As long as you do not use your pseudonymity to be gratuitously evil I don't expect it to create any consequences for you even if it's later discovered.

A perfectly objective and unambiguous measure that is sure to be applied sanely

I'm amused at this comment because it showed me that I was making a totally different assumption about what Drethelin meant (and I was clearly wrong) - online roleplaying games. ;) (Meaning the narrative sort, not the MMORPG sort.) Which I can recommend for a very similar reason, actually, it's definitely interesting to construct personas that are Not You but still relatable enough that you can play them.

Not sure that would prove much. If you lie about your life experience and psychology, and people trust and believe you, or politely pretend to, they will always generate bad psychologizations, even if they're normally quite good at psychologizing.

Hmm, my founding member badge seems to have disappeared.

You’re only writing this because commenters have been correctly deducing your true motives and you just want to keep denying it

/s in case it isn’t obvious

Taking the inverse of your joke, I wonder how much rhetorical force one could get out of derisively saying "you’re only writing that because [true thing that is the obvious actual reason why they are writing]". E.g., "you’re only arguing against meat eating because you oppose animal suffering". This is of course totally vacuous as an argument, but somehow I get the sense that it could be used to nonzero rhetorical effect in the right contexts.

Are you ok?

One reason I keep telling people about the amazing, life-changing power of assuming, unless there's strong and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that people believe the things they say they believe and have the motives they claim.

(And this is part of why I so despise "Power" based analysis, because they're basically nothing but assigning all sorts of beliefs and motives to others based on, basically, nothing.)

It's really too bad this is a subscriber-only post. I think this is something everything needs to read. (I also felt this way about the Karen post.)

As for me, I've learned this lesson a bunch of different ways, but the main one was all the people accusing me of being a shill for the Communists every time I say anything about China that doesn't stick to the US party line.

I have a Chinese wife who is *not* much enamored with modern China or the government, but acknowledges some positive things. I'm more bullish than she is, though I acknowledge many negative things, but whenever I speak about China, I feel oddly defensive about my motives.

And then half an hour later somebody will probably accuse you of hating people of Asian descent if you also criticized the Chinese government for, like, running concentration camps.

There was one evening at an sf con where people started discussing some of the real-world parallels for stories about occupation and resistance, like the Narns in Bab5, and S3 of Battlestar Galactica with the Cylon occupation of the human colony, and over the course of maybe half an hour, I got accused of being both anti-Semitic -- which I guess makes me a self-hating Jew, but OK -- and a shill for Israel who doesn't care about Palestinians, because I attempted to have a nuanced view of the humanity of rank and file citizens on both sides of that conflict. Happily, both of the aggrieved parties stormed off rather than continue to annoy the people who were actually trying to listen to each other.

I had not heard the term bulverism before, but it's neat. It immediately made me think of the public perception of psychoanalysis and Freud - that the psychoanalyst traces every psychological problem back to the patient's relationship to the mother, with no other sources considered.

Not having any genuine knowledge of psychology or psychoanalysis beyond Woody Allen movies and Saul Bellow novels, I can only assume that is an accurate description :)

In my experience, such attempts at guessing someone's motivations for having an opinion are usually a tactic for dismissing someone's opinion without having to have a coherent argument against it.

I think very few people actually have arguments for the opinions they hold, but they know it is important that they be seen to strongly hold those opinions, so if someone presents them with an alternative opinion, it is important that they have a way to dismiss it without needing to have an argument.

It's not quite the same thing, but a possible confounding factor is that, as a widely-read writer, you act however inadvertently as a spokesperson for any group you might be a member of. So naturally any characteristic X of your life is informing the perceptions that people have of people with the same characteristic. After your moving to the bay area I might retroactively diagnose your pre-move posts as having all the typical traits and Weltanschauung of a bay area blogger, because well you're the only bay area blogger I read.

As an IT person, a client knowing one or two "things" about technology leads to the worst and most bizarre outcomes. I always try to talk myself down, "it looks like this problem. Is it? How can I make sure?" I think it’s a good fit for working with people as well.

I noticed this trend in myself a while back, (early-mid 20’s maybe?) and traced it to a bad heuristic: "X looks like Y; X = Y." In conversations this would look like the phenomenon you describe.

I realized I could turn,"I is," to, "is it," and not only spark conversation but be less wrong. couple that with a decent memory (train yourself to remember names for an eXtreme power up) people often enjoy talking to you and you barely even need to say anything back.

Lol, "I is"

Daniel Kahneman - "what you see is all there is", or substituting 'what does this resemble?' when it should be 'how likely is it?'.

As you consider the next question, please assume that Steve was selected at random from a representative sample. An individual has been described by a neighbor as follows: "Steve is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail." Is Steve more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

According to Kahneman, most people assume Steve is a librarian. That answer is wrong, because it depends on occupational stereotypes while ignoring "equally relevant statistical considerations." The question is supposed to illustrate the shallowness of our intuitions about probability. "Did it occur to you that there are more than 20 male farmers for each male librarian in the United States? Because there are so many more farmers, it is almost certain that more ‘meek and tidy’ souls will be found on tractors than at library information desks."

Elizabeth Loftus is a famous researcher who studies the inaccuracies of memory. It’s a huge rabbit-hole but recently The New Yorker did a write up/interview with her and her family over Zoom. There’s a moment when discussion shifts to the possibility that her own life’s work at describing the creation of false memory formation might stem from a need for her to escape a painful childhood memory of her mothers suicide - her research manifestly allows her the possibility that the memory could be false. And since her family all has different recollections of the event, it’s muddled enough to seem inaccurate in many ways.

Psychoanalytically that’s sort of interesting because it represents a circular logic that her work is fundamentally in service to her own desires to have had false memories, but her work wouldn’t exist if she hadn’t have wanted the memory to be false in the first place. (M. Knight Shyamalan where you at?)

That also makes it sort of un-interesting at the same time because you can’t falsify her motives if she’s fundamentally unaware of them. Psychoanalysis would say that it’s still possible though - that she’s simply enacting a childhood fantasy.

Idk exactly why I’m writing this; perhaps there’s a common thread in that, in both cases, people are trying to explain things that one party is convinced is there to be found, and another party that isn’t convinced.

Stephen King has mentioned this in his writing about writing, that he often gets questions about "so how did you become a horror writer?" from people who imagine there must be some Big Traumatic Reason. He has an anecdote about an accident (going off my own vague memory here), I think he saw somebody killed on a railroad track or saw the dead body or something at a young age.

And when those reviewers or interviewers hear this, they light up and you can *see* them thinking "Aha! So writing horror is the way he copes with this traumatic memory!" Except that he explains no, that's not why. But since the interviewers can't see the inside of his head, they prefer to go with the 'obvious' explanation rather than "he's a writer, some writers write genre fiction like horror instead of proper literary fiction".

So now I know that Bulverism and Boulwarism are distinct concepts.

Okay I have to reply just for name similarity.

That seems like the best reason

I think it was reading history that convinced me that it's completely pointless to speculate about motives at all, and all that matters is actions.

It has taken me a very long time, but I now apply this rule to my own interpersonal relationships as well. Not that nobody gets to screw up; no one is perfect. But if someone's behaviour is pretty consistently kind and caring, I can know something important about them and what to expect in my relationship with them. If a person's behaviour is often self-centered or mean, it really really doesn't matter what insecurities, depression, unhealthy patterns learned in their FOO underlies that. I should just limit my contact with them as much as possible.

Of course, since I'm a psychologist, with my patients motives actually are important to figure out, sometimes. Especially when the person is trying to change a behaviour and struggling with that.

You’re not Alexander of Glycon or whatever? That guy was such a loser.

Before I learned the word "Bulverism", I called this "How to argue LIKE STALIN" based on the observation that Stalinism replaced all arguments about truth or falsity with arguments about motive.

FWIW, people who decided to do this guff always lose in the long term.

You haven’t written anything in a while. Nice to see you here in the comments. Is there anything in the queue? Hope you’re doing well.

Many thanks & sweet of you to say. Without going into details, there've been some changes in my life that reduce the amount of time I get to spend on things, and I am focusing on big projects, preferably ones that come with money attached.

I've also gotten utterly dispirited. SkepticInk was started as a counterweight to the FTB-Woke poison flooding the atheist scene. Now the atheist scene, the movement, is dead, dead, dead (I wrote a post about that) so.... yeah.

A bias argument is a weak way of explaining why a particular person believes something. But it can be a good way of explaining why lots of people do.

The example I am thinking of is the controversy over the origin of Covid. Past attempts to argue that it was almost certainly natural often quoted scientists in the field as expressing that belief. But it's clear that if you are virologist, you have strong reasons to want to believe that the kind of work you and your colleagues do was not responsible for a pandemic that killed millions of people. That doesn't tell us why any particular virologist offered that opinion — to explain that you would want to look at the arguments offered to see if they appeared to be special pleading. But it explains why, if you were looking for a virologist to dismiss a lab leak as a plausible source, you have no trouble finding some.

Yes, this is important. We can often explain statistical generalizations much better than we can explain instances. We can't say why this individual got cancer, but we can say why the cancer rate in this town went up 50% when a new factory started its emissions. We can't say why this person cares about China or Russia or whatever, but we can say why China or Russia or whatever became 50% more prominent in the discourse.

I see this phenomenon a lot in fandoms of content creators of all kinds. Just look in youtube comments sections and you'll see super fans (I guess they'd be called Stans now) who have clearly collected, as trivia facts, every detail the creator has ever let slip about their personal life, and then they use those scraps of information as fuel for speculation and explanation of everything.

I think if there's a solution, maybe it would have something to do with helping the afflicted realize that the body of information self-published by a person is only a small minority of the relevant information about them, subject to huge selection bias, etc.

If I were too irresponsibly speculate on the psychology of it, I'd guess it has something to do with conceptualizing public individuals as if they were tv characters. When you watch a show, everything you see on screen and get explained really is all the relevant information about that character (otherwise they wouldn't have shown it). Maybe real people who appear in media are just too similar to fictional characters to our brains.

Good observation. The characters say certain things, but since the time is so short, a great deal has to be communicated through gesture, clothes, tone of voice, various aspects of appearance. As life imitates art imitating life, (some) people forget how to do anything other than read each otherś appearances/coded surfaces.

You are a screen onto which people project themselves - their ideas, connections, hopes, fears, needs. Probably makes you a better mental health worker.

Additionally, our regular exposure to a variety of propaganda in the US encourages people to think that way. Disney is great at this; certain speech patterns and hairstyles mean villain, other ones mean hero. TV (and other media and social groupings) repeatedly show people making this type of assumption and being rewarded (with a princess, etc.) Does it work in the real world, not at first, but if enough people are trained that thatś the right way to draw conclusions, soon, since much of social behavior is mimicry, it begins to look true to larger numbers of people. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide everyone into two groups, and...

Is it really untrue to say that your opinions are unusual, because you're unusual?

Not necessarily - but plenty of people who are unusual in one way or another have some very *usual* opinion because of that unusuality. (Just consider all the ways that, e.g., Mormonism is very unusual, but leads people to a host of very conventional suburban behaviors and opinions, in addition to some very unusual opinions.)

Maybe everyone is 100% right about you and you just have very poor insight into your own motives. Especially about the logically impossible motives.

You are writing as though you ate a bad sandwich today.

I would obviously not be able to tell, but yes, it sounds like he is being trolled heavily. Perhaps some of them are earnest, logical-type trolls that he is disposed to spend time reading; but that does not mean they are not just as paid and just as programmed... what they write is designed to weigh on him like snow on an old roof. Scott, do not let em win. Just cuz they say they read your blog, well, after dear old NYT, that may mean less than it once did. Here is a thought, start taking data on what people write to you, if you do not already do so. I do not know what you would find but I think it might turn out to be helpful. The apostrophe is broken on this keyboard.

Speaking from my own viewpoint, when you constantly get "you only think this thing because you hate all women and want to control and punish them for sexuality" by people who like to cosplay as Handmaids, then yeah, occasionally you do feel as if you're suffering indigestion.

A list of the eeeevil things I, as anti-abortion, want to do to women and am slavering at the mouth and rubbing my hands in evil glee simply imagining doing, from the above linked post:

- Imprison or execute women who access safe abortion care.

- Tear babies away from their parents and lock them in cages, with no plan to reunite them.

-Silence doctors and strip reproductive healthcare away from millions of low-income people.

- Stand by while the maternal mortality rates skyrocket and women—especially Black women—die in childbirth.

- Deny affordable healthcare coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

- Cut programs that feed hungry kids.

- Block access to HIV testing and treatment across the globe.

- Incite far-right violence with lies about abortion.

Damn! How did they know about my fantasy drawings of special gags to silence doctors? Or my bespoke line of baby cages? Can't a bigot make an honest dollar out of torture and hatred any more?

Well, Scott, I have no idea what makes you tick, but I like your mind.

My feelings exactly.

I'm not sure if it's quite the same, but I get this experience quite a lot simply by reading the writing of not-terribly-thoughtful people who disagree with me on political or culture-war issues. I routinely find hilariously inaccurate theories for why I believe the things I believe. I know for a fact that this happens on both the left and the right.

The problem isn't that people don't have these experiences, but rather that they fail to generalize from them. The takeaway is usually "They don't get me at all, but I have them totally figured out."

Sorry if this is OT, and I only bring it up because you mention 'premature pattern matching', but...

How do we know if there is really a 'culture war'? I guess I'm not sold on that. I get that it's a metaphor, and that makes it by definition impossible to prove/disprove, but would anyone come to this conclusion who wasn't making a daily habit of reading curated online news feeds? If you're just a guy who's working at the BP refinery, and who's not spending a lot of time on Vox or whatever, are you really waking up every morning thinking 'wow, this country has become SO divided?'

I bring that up because I think that for this notion of a 'war' (even at the metaphorical level) needs, at a minimum, to have a critical number of possible combatants agree that the 'war' is actually taking place. What that # is, exactly, I guess I don't know, but it probably needs to be substantial for the metaphor to be appropriate, and I'm not convince we've reached anything near that critical mass.

Wars are fought on the home front as well. Your guy at the BP refinery may not be on the front lines or in the trenches, or anywhere near them. But the knock-on effects will apply to him as well; the necessity for the use of black-out curtains, the imposition of wardens coming round to check up on him that he's using them and using them correctly, and so on:

Depending on whether he's white-collar or blue-collar level, our friend at the BP Refinery might not even be aware of BP Pride - but maybe even the manual labour guys are going to be made aware in *some* manner that "you have to use the manager's preferred pronouns when xie makes a site visit":

"So, here I am – I’m now one of two Co-Chairs of BP Pride in our Sunbury office. Whilst our work at BP Pride is recognised in the BP annual performance plan, I do it because it matters. We have worked really hard to build and maintain our BP Pride networks in the UK, Hungary, Asia Pacific and the US. We are also a trusted business partner, and have worked with HR to create an official LGBT-specific training programme called the ‘Safe Space’. We’ve successfully trained more than 3,000 people across the globe in this programme to date, and it’s open to everyone. Essentially, it gives people an understanding of the challenges LGBT employees face in the workplace. We run interviews where people are not allowed to use pronouns when they talk about their weekends, because that’s the situation you face when you are not out at work, and other situational exercises.

We have also recently launched transition guidelines for transgender employees who want to transition. The guidelines are now globally available and that’s a massive step."

I recently read the Wikipedia "timeline of 1960s counterculture", and it sounds like some sort of real culture war got going by 1966 or 1967 (when California and then other governments banned LSD, and political arguments started being won by the symbolism of being anti-hippie, even as hippie-ism became more and more popular) and in the 1970s it actually became a real war with bombs and stuff.

In retrospect, it feels like the 1980s and 1990s and maybe 2000s were some sort of respite in the culture war (though in the 1980s, only because the forces of the 1960s counterculture were in full retreat behind "Disco sucks" and AIDS and the Reagan/Thatcher revolution).

But it really is hard to tell in the moment when this long ongoing culture war is increasing and when it is decreasing. It would be very surprising if it had been precisely constant over this whole time.

I'm more just baffled that people care that much about *why* something is written. If people spent even half as much time considering the actual contents of what gets written instead of speculating about why it was written, public discourse would probably be no less fraught but at least it would be more about policies and questions that stand a chance in heck of being able to solve real problems.

The reason for it is fairly depressing. We are mostly just sophisticated social monkeys and after we have a full belly and are out of the rain the thing we care about most is figuring out whose team everybody else is on.

I think there are many contexts in which people get more accurate knowledge by paying attention to the team than by thinking about the underlying matter. Political scientists have long said that this is why well-defined parties are helpful - people have a really poor track record of judging what policies individual politicians will support, but have a pretty good track record of understanding parties, and so representatives will better represent the popular will if people vote the party rather than the person. Most people are really bad at fundamental thinking about any sort of subject matter, and will do better by trusting experts rather than either thinking for themself or trusting crackpots - while team thinking probably explains the support of particularly weird forms of flat eartherism, team thinking probably *also* explains why round eartherism is so wildly dominant.

If you believe that reasons are often (literally) rationalizations for decisions that were made for other reasons (e.g., Mercier' and Sperber's The Elephant in the Brain), then it helps to know "where someone is coming from".

Thus, it was not surprising that virologists early on jumped to the conclusion that COVID hadn't come from a virology lab. I think this is also why the article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists did so much to make the "lab leak" theory respectable. The Bulletin is a long-established leftie publication. But lab leak was considered to be a right wing, even Trumpist, theory. So it was a big deal for them to break with the conventional wisdom of their team. The article would have had little or no effect if it had appeared in, say, The American Conservative or

"One does best to separate an artist from his work, not taking him as seriously as his work. He is, after all, only the precondition of his work, the womb, the soil, sometimes the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows—and therefore in most cases something one must forget if one is to enjoy the work itself" Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, essay III.

Scott, isn't actively and inventively fueling the flames the obvious thing to do here?

Make a game of it, and either ignore them or take a certain wry amusement in their misapprehensions.

Could this not be an effect of everyone being, say, 95% accurate at pattern matching, with 5% false positives, but if falsely ascribing motives only the 5% would post as why would you post about no motive being detected? In any large group this 5% error plus differential posting would lead to an apparent large bias in overpredicting motives.

"This is one reason I'm against bias arguments, against dog-whistle arguments, and skeptical of actual literal psychoanalysis"

Agreed. Also, literary criticism. Your post reminded me of how, while Tolkien was still alive, lots of literary critics thought the One Ring was meant as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, and continued to say this even after he insisted it wasn't.

In literary criticism though, the point isn't always to understand the history of the creative process that went into the work - it's often to understand the cultural reception that eventually will come out of the work, and the author doesn't have a lot to say about that.

To nitpick a bit it's clear you thought these things before substack etc and I doubt it's directly about monetizing clicks but your remarks certainly make it sound like you would have been more reluctant to publish them as they are in a batch without the change to a situation (partly bc of substack) you are less vulnerable at.

This that you complain of has long been the same, see C.S. Lewis' essays On Criticism (not published until 1975 but must have been written earlier, probably sometime in the 50s) and an address in 1959 to Cambridge theological students (which has been published under various names)

(A) from "On Criticism"

"1. Nearly all reviewers assume that your books were written in the same order in which they were published and all shortly before publication. There was a very good instance of this lately in the reviews of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Most critics assumed (this illustrates a different vice) that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must `be' the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible. Others assumed that the 'mythology' of his romance had grown out of his children's story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false. Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don't know they don't know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess. Here certainly the warning to us all as critics is very clear and alarming. Critics of Piers Plowman and the Faerie Queene make gigantic constructions about the history of these compositions. Of course we should all admit such constructions to be conjectural. And as conjectures, you may ask, are they not, some of them, probable? Perhaps they are. But the experience of being reviewed has lowered my estimate of their probability. Because, when you start by knowing the facts, you find that the constructions are very often wholly wrong. Apparently the chances of their being right are low, even when they are made along quite sensible lines. Of course I am not forgetting that the reviewer has (quite rightly) devoted less study to my book than the scholar has devoted to Langland or Spenser. But I should have expected that to be compensated for by other advantages which he has and the scholar lacks. After all, he lives in the same period as I, subjected to the same currents of taste and opinion, and has undergone the same kind of education. He can hardly help knowing—reviewers are good at this sort of thing and take an interest in it—quite a lot about my generation, my period, and the circles in which I probably move. He and I may even have common acquaintances. Surely he is at least as well placed for guessing about me as any scholar is for guessing about the dead. Yet he seldom guesses right.

...2. Another type of critic who speculates about the genesis of your book is the amateur psychologist. He has a Freudian theory of literature and claims to know all about your inhibitions. He knows what unacknowledged wishes you were gratifying. And here of course one cannot, in the same sense as before, claim to start by knowing all the facts. By definition you are unconscious of the things he professes to discover. Therefore the more loudly you disclaim them, the more right he must be: though, oddly enough, if you admitted them, that would prove him right too. And there is a further difficulty: one is not here so free from bias, for this procedure is almost entirely confined to hostile reviewers. And now that I come to think of it, I have seldom seen it practiced on a dead author except by a scholar who intended, in some measure, to debunk him. ...It is in fact quite clear that there is one impulse in your mind of which, with all their psychology, they have never reckoned: the plastic impulse, the impulse to make a thing, to shape, to give unity, relief, contrast, pattern. But this, unhappily, is the impulse which chiefly caused the book to be written at all. They have, clearly, no such impulse themselves, and they do not suspect it in others. They seem to fancy that a book trickles out of one like a sigh or a tear or automatic writing."

(B) From the 1959 address:

"What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and in the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don't mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produces its dullness.

Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author's mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his overall intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why - and when - he did everything.

Now I must record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as the miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can't remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.

And yet they would often sound - if you didn't know the truth - extremely convincing. Many reviewers suggested that the Ring in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was suggested by the atom bomb. What could be more plausible. Here is a book published when everyone was preoccupied by that sinister invention; here in the centre of the book is a weapon which is seems madness to throw away yet fatal to use. Yet in fact, the chronology of the book's composition make the theory impossible. Only the other week a reviewer said that a fairy-tale by my friend Roger Lancelyn Green was influenced by fairy-tales of mine. Nothing could be more probable. I have an imaginary country with a beneficent lion in it; Green, one with a beneficent tiger. Green and I can be proved to read one another's works; to be indeed in various ways closely associated. The case for an affiliation is far stronger than many which we accept as conclusive when dead authors are concerned. But it's all untrue nevertheless. I know the genesis of that Tiger and that Lion and they are quite independent."

Could make this a prediction market, assuming Scott is in touch enough with his own motives.

I really want to eat something fried and sweet right now, and I blame this post.

Interesting. Thank you for bringing it up expressly.

"I wish I could convince other people of this, but there's no shortcut to writing a blog, telling people about your personal life, and then letting them all make wildly incorrect inferences."

I'll be honest, this sentence confused me a bit! Did you mean to write "and then preventing them from making wildly incorrect inferences" / "and then letting them all make only correct inferences" (i.e. there is no shortcut to preventing people from making the wildly incorrect inferences, which was what I thought you wanted to say here)?

Or is the shortcut to the experience that other people do that (i.e. that people will have to accrue blogging experience themselves before they know it's true that other people do this)?

I guess it's got to be latter, but I wanted to put this comment here just in case it's not. :)

Thanks for writing this up! Echoing the sentiment that it's a bit of a shame this is subscriber-only, this seems like the sort of post that would be great to link people to for a primer into this bias (quite independent of your person).

I think this is a more general problem for all of us. We tend to be arrogant, acting as though we are clairvoyant. It's not just your readers, but every pundit, politician, belligerent tweeter and ordinary person. Most people think they know other people's thoughts, motivations, and beliefs.

This also happens, as you point out, in the culture wars. I can't remember the number of times that people have been accused of deliberately using white supremacist hand signals. It seems also entirely plausible to me, that a hand was simply sitting idle on somebody's lap, coincidentally looking like some hermetic symbol (most of which correspond to fairly anodyne uses of our hands)

I also think about all the times that politicians use various turns of phrase, perhaps signalling something (dog whistle) -- but also possibly entirely ignorant of a sub-cultural meaning to one or another minority group.

I am usually clueless. My minority friends tell me the "obvious' meanings of these comments. But even as I belong to certain groups, for example, as a woman, or a jew, I am often caught unaware of how certain terms or idioms are perceived as bigoted.

Despite my "ignorance" people around me are certain in their interpretations.

By the way, I'm not positive the malign interpretations are wrong. It just seems to me that it's a leap from seeing a casual use of one's hand to the conclusion that they are a member of a secret cabal.

We also do the same in our intimate or casual relationships. We believe we know what our partners meant, what our bosses think, and why that asshole did something or other.

It would be really useful for all of us to embrace more humility. No one knows what goes on in anyone else's mind or heart. In fact, even when people tell us what they believe or think or feel, do we really know what they mean?

I wish you'd unlock this post; it's an important one to reference. I'll also comment that while readers have performed incredible feats of Watsonian analysis on HPMOR - like that one person who read through Ch. 28 and decoded the Pettigrew story on the first try from the mere fact that the author had taken time to comment on the existence of Metamorphmagi in nearby proximity - not a single person correctly analyzed any of the Deep Literary Themes that I had meant to be blatant, like Hermione representing the Plight of the Secondary Character in Fanfiction, or even that she was a Deconstruction of Standard Wrong Beliefs About What Constitutes a Mary Sue.

This is known as the illusion of asymmetric insight:

I am actually somewhat conflicted on this subject. The thing about unconscious bias is... you don't realize you're being biased because it's not conscious. Thus, it doesn't strike me as being particularly suspect, at least in theory, that people might be able to tell stuff about you that you may not realize about yourself, in the same way that someone might pull you aside and tell you you've got a bat in the cave you need to flush out. Think of Robin Hanson's The Elephant in the Brain, where he says

"Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better - and thus we don't like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is 'the elephant in the brain.' Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior."

This makes sense to me, and I would point out that it would also make sense that our brains would evolve to be able to sniff out other people's ugly motives, moreso than our own.

Nonetheless, the point remains true that, given sufficient information about your interlocutor, you can probably use this principle as a justification to dismiss just about any argument he/she might make, unless maybe it's some obvious argument against interest, like a priest making an argument against religion or an oil company executive arguing for high carbon taxes. Again, I remain conflicted on this subject.

And yet, you say here:

"In other words, if a fight is important to you, fight nasty. If that means lying, lie. If that means insults, insult. If that means silencing people, silence.

It always makes me happy when my ideological opponents come out and say eloquently and openly what I’ve always secretly suspected them of believing."

You know what's funny? I believe the folks who psychoanalyze you are mostly incorrect. And I believe what you say here about your secret suspicions regarding your opponents is almost certainly correct.

It's pretty difficult to distill a general principle from this. I mean, "Don't attempt mind-reading unless you're able to read minds," doesn't really get the job done, does it?

It seems like you really took that out of context.

What I want to know is, are these types of predictions usually used as a way to dismiss the opinion or preference you are expressing? Along the lines of 'you only think that because you live in the Bay area, if you had more experience of life elsewhere/more exposure to non-Bay opinions ... you'd never think that'?

In the cases where that is how the prediction is used, I'd actually consider it not a prediction but a (very pathetic) form of argument.

Could our blogger's experience in this regard be applied to theories of human behavior that make assumptions about human motive? Does his experience, for example, suggest one should be cautious about game-theory approaches, which seem to assume that almost all humans are almost always motivated by rationalistic advantage-maximization (especially the maximization of obvious material advantage)?

Given the gosh-darn amount of quoting I've been doing recently from Humphrey Carpenter's "Selected Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien", it's amusing to find that it's going on for seventy years now that the New York Times has been making a hash of interviews:

Introduction to Letter No. 165

On 5 June 1955 in the New York Times Book Review, the columnist Harvey Breit devoted part of his weekly article 'In and Out of Books' to an account of Tolkien and his writings. It included this passage: 'What, we asked Dr [sic] Tolkien, makes you tick? Dr T., who teaches at Oxford when he isn't writing novels, has this brisk reply: "I don't tick. I am not a machine. (If I did tick, I should have no views on it, and you had better ask the winder.) My work did not 'evolve' into a serious work. It started like that. The so-called 'children's story' [The Hobbit] was a fragment, torn out of an already existing mythology. In so far as it was dressed up as 'for children', in style or manner, I regret it. So do the children. I am a philologist, and all my work is philological. I avoid hobbies because I am a very serious person and cannot distinguish between private amusement and duty. I am affable, but unsociable. I only work for private amusement, since I find my duties privately amusing." '

These remarks were apparently taken from a letter written by Tolkien in answer to enquiries by a representative of the New York Times. On 30 June 1955, Tolkien wrote to the Houghton Mifflin Co., his American publishers: 'Please do not blame me for what Breit made of my letter!.... The original made sense: not a quality, however, of which Harvey B. seems perceptive. I was asked a series of questions, with a request to answer briefly, brightly, and quotably. .... Out of sheer pity [for another enquirer wanting information] .... I do enclose a few notes on points other than mere facts of my "curriculum vitae" (which can be got from reference books).' What follows is these 'few notes'. The text is taken from a typescript apparently made by the Houghton Mifflin Co. from Tolkien's original; this typescript was sent to a number of enquirers at different times, some of whom quoted from it in articles about Tolkien. Tolkien himself was given a copy of the typescript, and he made a number of annotations and corrections to it, which are incorporated into the text which is here printed.

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