The book that changed how I think about thinking
Julia GalefA conversation with writer Julia Galef on how to think less like a soldier and more like a scout. I’ve learned more about how to think and reason well from Julia Galef than from almost anyone.
Galef, a writer, researcher, and podcaster, is obsessive about improving her own reasoning processes and helping other people improve theirs. For years, she led a group offering seminars and workshops for people to improve their reasoning skills. But lately, her approach has changed.
In her new book, The Scout Mindset, she argues it’s not enough to teach people which cognitive biases we all suffer from and how to avoid them. If someone wants to think more clearly, they have to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and openness to evidence.
This week, I had Galef on the Vox Conversations podcast to talk about how to develop the scout mindset. Below is a transcript that’s been condensed for brevity and clarity.
Walk me through what you mean by “scout mindset.” What does it mean to have it? How do you know if you have it?
It’s my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.
By default, a lot of the time we humans are in what I call “soldier mindset,” in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.
I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to “shore up” our beliefs, “support them” and “buttress them” as if they’re fortresses. We try to “shoot down” opposing arguments and we try to “poke holes” in the other side.
I call this “soldier mindset,” and “scout mindset” is an alternative to that. It’s a different way of thinking about what to believe or thinking about what’s true.
You have a lot of examples of “scout mindset” in the book, and one of my favorites was the French Colonel Georges Picquart in the late 19th, early 20th century. He’s a kind of loathsome guy in some ways, but admirable in others.
So in the late 19th century in France there was what’s called the Dreyfus Affair. A memo was found in a wastebasket written by someone in the French army, addressed to the Germans, divulging a bunch of top-secret military plans.
The French army realized they had a spy in their ranks and launched an investigation. They quickly converged on this high-ranking officer named Alfred Dreyfus, who was the only Jewish member in the top ranks of the French army.
The officers who prosecuted Dreyfus genuinely believed that he was the spy. But their investigation, if you look at it from the outside, was incredibly slanted. They ignored testimony from experts who said that Dreyfus’s handwriting didn’t match the memo, and they only trusted the experts who said the handwriting did match the memo. So they convicted Dreyfus in this “soldier mindset”-filled investigation.
Dreyfus gets imprisoned on Devil’s Island. But then another officer gets promoted to the head of this investigative department. His name is Colonel Picquart and he is anti-Semitic, just like his fellow officers were. That was just kind of the norm in France at the time.
He didn’t like Dreyfus and he had all of the same biases that his fellow officers did. But he also had a much stronger drive to recognize and pursue the truth than his fellow officers did.
He started looking into the investigation that had been conducted into Dreyfus, he went through all this evidence and realized, wait, this is actually a really flimsy case. We just don’t have a strong case against this guy. I think we might have just convicted an innocent man.
His fellow officers just kept kind of dismissing his concerns and rationalizing away the inconsistencies he’d found. And this just made him really angry. And so he kept pursuing it and pursuing it. And it took many years, and the army actually tried to shut him up by putting him in jail as well. But eventually, Colonel Picquart managed to get Dreyfus exonerated and Dreyfus was reinstated back in the Army.
Colonel Picquart is a hero to me because, even though he was an anti-Semite, which, as you say, makes him kind of a loathsome figure, in a way that I think makes a scout mindset even more admirable. His love for the truth was so strong that it was able to outweigh his personal biases against Dreyfus and his personal biases towards preserving his job and his reputation and so on.
When I first met you, you were doing seminars and workshops that were trying to help people notice their cognitive biases, think more rationally, and use better reasoning methods in their own lives.
In the book, you seem a little disillusioned from that project. You write that just telling people
May 3, 2021 - VOX
Julia GalefA conversation with writer Julia Galef on how to think less like a soldier and more like a scout. I’ve learned more about how to think and reason well from Julia Galef than from almost anyone. Galef, a writer, researcher, and podcaster, is obsessive about improving her own reasoning processes and helping other people improve theirs. For years, she led a group offering seminars and workshops for people to improve their reasoning skills. But lately, her approach has changed. In her new..