2 Habits for a Better Intellectual Life

User TurnTrout posted their reflection on attaining a PhD in the LessWrong community recently. I've been debating going back to school for a Masters and PhD but can't determine the fundamental benefits other than a structured learning environment, peer group, and a bit of a social flex. I don't think those are the right reasons to go back to school, but maybe they are?

The post was brilliant and well-written. I implore you to read the whole thing. The most concrete advice was towards the end, where they outlined habits they had wished to practice more regularly. I thought the habits were practical even outside of academia and, if practiced more regularly by more people, would make for better conversations.

Distinguish between observation and inference

TurnTrout says:

When people speak to you, mark their arguments as observations or as inferences. Keep the types separate. I've gained so much from this simple practice.

I like the idea here, but I'd change "inference" to "opinion."

This echoes something I tweeted about last week about the importance of Twitter and other "thinking" out loud" tools being seen as a laboratory for testing conjectures and not a battleground for opinions. When an influential person tweets, inevitably they don't account for all of the nuance. It's impossible to do so with 280 characters. Also inevitably, everyone starts attacking the user for not mentioning their specific, niche life story that this tweet wouldn't apply to. It's annoying.

It would do well for people online to differentiate between an observation made about the world and an inference into how that world actually works.

This would be good for dinner conversations with family, especially those with opposing political views. I ask risky questions to people with protected opinions all the time because I want to understand what they think and how they see the world. I love running thought experiments. With the topic of abortion being front and center now, instead of arguing over whether the government should be involved or this view vs. that view, I'll pitch a thought experiment outlining a situation and then request we go through the experiment as if abortion were legal and if abortion weren't legal. What's the right thing to do? How would someone be feeling in that situation?

The benefit of this is that it allows you to run through some fringe scenario that would probably never happen. Since the problem is exaggerated, the solutions are exaggerated. Often, it illuminates one path as better than another because of how it plays out in the exaggerated situation.

To get to that point, though, one must be comfortable entertaining observations and questions. The group must understand that these scenarios aren't opinions, they're just questions to be explored. If we want to progress intellectually with hot-button issues, we must be able to set aside opinions and explore observations and questions. The first step to doing so is being able to differentiate the two in the first place.

Be concrete

TurnTrout says:

  • If a friend comes to me for advice and says "I'm terrible at dating, I just feel so shy!", I could say "You're really fun to be around, you're probably just in your head too much", and then they could say "Agh, maybe, but it's just so frustrating." Wouldn't that just be such a useful conversation for them? That'll definitely solve their awkwardness!
    • Alternatively, if I ask for an example, we can both analyze an event which actually happened. Perhaps they say, "I met a girl named Alice at the party, but I somehow ran out of things to say, and it got quiet, and we found excuses to part ways." Then I can help my friend introspect and figure out why they didn't have anything to say, which is in fact a question with a real answer.

Vague scenarios and questions help no one. I see/hear this a lot when someone is uncomfortable asking for advice on the specific scenario they're dealing with. So instead, they ask a vague question that doesn't make complete sense. This isn't helpful–for either the advice-giver or the advice-asker.

The more you can think through a scenario that actually happened, the better your thought processes and learning patterns will be from those situations.

Be concrete.