A review of The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t by Julia Galef. Portfolio, 288 pages (April, 2021)
Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don't is a brisk introduction to a particular way of thinking about the world and our place within it. In another era, those habits of mind might have been called “critical rationalism.” Given how often the Star Trek character Spock features in the narrative, you could be forgiven for wondering if the book is promoting the “Spock mindset”; after all the Vulcan’s adherence to logic is world-famous. But The Scout Mindset actually shows that Spock’s logical deductions led him into error more often than not. Galef arrived at this conclusion by actually watching the television show, and comparing Spock’s predictions to outcomes. In other words, she went out and collected evidence. Galef was an empirical scout tabulating and tracking across the seasons, rather than simply a passive observer absorbing each episode in a standalone fashion. Throughout the book, she outlines methods that enable critical rationalism, while avoiding excessive anchoring to “logical deductions” derived from faulty premises, like Spock. Rather than a prescribed and specific way of thinking, The Scout Mindset articulates the importance of attitude, a default stance founded on humility and provisionality not often associated with some of the more naive and overly enthusiastic exponents of rationality.
Galef is a 38-year old Columbia University-trained statistician, and she is well-positioned to write a book instructing others how to think, reason, and derive conclusions. She was the first president of the Center for Applied Rationality, and to this day hosts the popular Rationally Speaking podcast. A long-time resident of the Bay Area (until recently), Galef is someone I’ve known socially in a casual manner for nearly a decade, and two years ago she invited me onto her podcast to discuss various things I’d got wrong. If there is one thing I’d want readers of The Scout Mindset to understand, it is that Galef and her social milieu of Bay-Area rationalists prize epistemic humility as a means of distinguishing right from wrong. It is not uncommon for me to witness an exchange between two rationalists that hinges on the sentence “You are wrong and I am right, and here is why.” Whereas awkwardness and conflict might ensue in most milieus, among rationalists, this is an earnest opening to a deep investigation of how and why two individuals differed. By the end, one interlocutor will often have cheerfully revised their opinion.
If this sounds bizarre, it is because most human behavior is the outcome of a default state that Galef terms the “soldier mindset,” according to which a person is deeply attached to their views and will defend them against all comers. In the soldier mindset, being wrong is not an opportunity to learn and refine one’s positions, but an emotionally traumatic admission to be avoided at all costs. For my money, the soldier mindset actually deserves a more banal and inclusive label: the human mindset. If the scout mindset turns the human brain into an idealized information-processing device, computing inferences and absorbing new data, the soldier mindset comes preloaded with a few useful programs that are used over and over again. Though Galef pushes gently against the proposition that humans are “naturally” irrational, it is hard to deny the universality of the soldier mindset. That it’s the default human state indicates that it has not always been beneficial for humans to utilize the scout mindset in the past.
This is not to say that our forager ancestors did not find aspects of the scout mindset useful. Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist among modern humans. Our lineage of Homo sapiens was the first to push into Australia and the New World, indicating a certain flexibility and openness lacking in our Neanderthal cousins. But the ubiquity of the soldier mindset across all societies shows that extreme openness and flexibility were the exceptions rather than the rule. From the viewpoint of cultural evolution, this may actually be optimal. In a world where technology changed very slowly, and the seasonal cycle repeated endlessly, it was logical that humans would assimilate traditional wisdom by rote, rather than attempting to learn everything anew, risking grave errors. The challenges an individual faced would be the same as those faced by their grandparents and their great-great-great-grandparents. In our present time, it is sometimes hard to remember just how slowly our societies once evolved. The Magdalenian culture, famous for its glorious cave art during the Ice Age, flourished between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago. The 5,000 years of this culture’s existence would be the equivalent of a society spanning Predynastic Egypt to the present day. For the vast majority of Homo sapiens’ existence over the last 300,000 years, we were soldiers marching to the tune of our ancestors, because their ways had earned them descendants that survived into the next generation. Right or wrong, their instincts were adaptive.
The problem in 2021 is that technological and cultural change is now so rapid that these instincts seem totally inadequate to the moment. Contemporary tweens don’t even remember an era before the smartphone. The wisdom of the elders—by which I mean older Zoomers—is lost on them. It may seem like a whimsical example, but this problem characterizes the whole modern era, as technological and cultural revolutions have roiled societies, transforming them from generation to generation. The wisdom of our elders is far less valuable than it was in the past, because our grandparents’ experience of courting during school dances seems quaint and irrelevant in the world of Tinder.
Nevertheless, the default settings of the soldier mindset remain with us. This means that in a world of protean change and surprising disruptions we don’t adapt in a critically rational manner, but simply reinterpret the sensory input with our naive intuitions and impulses. If the soldier mindset was adaptive on the timescale of millennia, the scout mindset is necessary for us to constantly pivot and update in an age when young people don’t even remember what “Netscape time” meant in the 1990s, as new startups increased the metabolic rate of cultural change by orders of magnitude.
Galef is perfectly aware of the cultural currents of our age and makes the case for her form of rationality as an antidote to some of the panics and manias she sees around us. The last section of The Scout Mindset is titled “Rethinking Identity,” and here she contends that strong racial, religious, and ideological affinities are a barrier to clear thinking. The massive cultural changes of the last generation have resulted in a resurgence of human tribalism on a scale that would have left our ancestors aghast. Whereas Pleistocene humans likely had clans that persisted for generations and tribes that lasted for hundreds of years, today the identities of young people can change by gender (and even species) within just a few years. And while this may seem farcical, many Americans now take such fluidity very seriously. In contrast to the scout mindset, these cultural innovations are invested with deep emotional attachment and brook no rational inquiry. They are matters of pure feeling, defended with the psychological armamentarium of the Paleolithic soldier mindset. To question someone’s identity is akin to psychic violence.
In contrast, The Scout Mindset is trying to resurrect a spirit of inquiry and a set of aspirations that flourished more than a decade ago, instantiated in the New Atheism, which gave rise to the skeptic movement, and the rationalist community that still coalesces online around figures like Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky. But in the process, Galef is updating rationalism, and smoothing out some of its rougher edges. The scout mindset means replacing militant atheism with a more cautious and non-judgemental initial stance on matters of religion, epitomized in an example Galef recounts of a close friendship between the atheist journalist Kelsey Piper of Vox and Jen, a Roman Catholic woman. Piper is pro-choice on the question of abortion, but her openness to differing views means that she now understands the pro-life position far better than she did, to the point of having sympathy for some of its arguments. Where much of the New Atheist movement has been absorbed into the culturally Left social-justice rubric, The Scout Mindset highlights individuals and groups with similar origins who have now moved to idiosyncratic positions like “effective altruism,” which synthesizes a commitment to human wellbeing and flourishing with a rational thought process aimed at achieving hard results rather than stopping at emotional rallying cries.
The scout mindset, however, does not set aside emotion. Galef offers an unflattering portrayal of Spock because he doesn’t seem to have used logic very well—he was overconfident and refused to re-evaluate the reliability of his powers of deduction. A passion for human wellbeing has to be paired with a rich and vibrant emotional life, the sort of life that Spock dismissed as without value. David Hume’s dictum that reason is a slave to the passions seems to be empirically correct, and Galef doesn’t dispute this reality. Rather, she outlines how best to understand the world as it is, rather than how we wish it to be, and argues that this allows us to achieve our goals and dreams more fully.
And yet, The Scout Mindset is destined to find only a small audience because of the constraints of human nature. Chapters focusing on self-deception, learning to be wrong, and escaping echo chambers find Galef taking aim at “cognitive biases” which muddle and cloud our thinking. It is clear that her prescriptions would result in greater epistemological hygiene and a world in which humans are typified by clearer thinking and an ability to achieve their aims more fully. But just like children who have better things to do than eat their vegetables, I do wonder how many will opt to receive her message of self-improvement.
Despite its clarity and the sensitivity of Galef’s manner, it is hard for me to imagine the average person walking away from her book reformed. The readers upon whom Galef’s work is likely to have the greatest impact are those who already aspire toward rationality, and have some familiarity with topics such as the heuristics and biases program of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The Scout Mindset is an excellent exposition of a clear and rational way of thinking, reshaped and improved by wisdom accumulated in the wake of the early 2010s’ replication crisis. But the empirical reality is that any given army will have only a few intrepid scouts—the vast majority will always be plodding soldiers.
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