April 14, 2022
 min read

Mind Macros 12: Forming beliefs, speed reading, and Hanlon’s razor

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Hello, friend.

Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.​

Food for Thought

1. Forming beliefs

“We form beliefs in a haphazard way, believing all sorts of things based just on what we hear out in the world but haven’t researched for ourselves.

“This is how we think we form abstract beliefs: We hear something; We think about it and vet it, determining whether it is true or false; only after that We form our belief.

“It turns out, though, that we actually form abstract beliefs this way: We hear something; We believe it to be true; Only sometimes, later, if we have the time or the inclination, we think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.

“We might think of ourselves as open-minded and capable of updating our beliefs based on new information, but the research conclusively shows otherwise. Instead of altering our beliefs to fit new information, we do the opposite, altering our interpretation of that information to fit our beliefs.” — From Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Motivated reasoning describes how we let our beliefs mold our perception of the world, ensuring that we see things as we are, not as they are. Steven Pinker in Rationality sums this up by stating that each of us has a motive to prefer our truth, but together we're better off with the truth.

When we add a belief to our arsenal, evidence for why it's true begins compounding. Even if provided with proof that disproves these beliefs, we will interpret such evidence in ways that support our currently held narratives.

The human brain is not a level playing field for rational decision-making. The myth that we are reasonable creatures stems from the incorrect assumption that our brains are, by default, instruments of logic.

Wikipedia lists 188 cognitive biases; in less technical terms, we could think of these as tricks our brains play on us to hinder our ability to use rationality, logic and sound judgment. Understanding these biases makes it easier to smooth out some bumps, but increasing our capacity for rationality requires serious commitment.

2. Hanlon’s Razor: Don’t attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity

"Hanlon’s Razor states that we should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity.

​“In a complex world, using this model helps us avoid paranoia and ideology. By not generally assuming that bad results are the fault of a bad actor, we look for options instead of missing opportunities. This model reminds us that people do make mistakes. It demands that we ask if there is another reasonable explanation for the events that have occurred. The explanation most likely to be right is the one that contains the least amount of intent. Assuming the worst intent crops up all over our lives.

​“Consider road rage, a growing problem in a world that is becoming short on patience and time. When someone cuts you off, to assume malice is to assume the other person has done a lot of risky work. In order for someone to deliberately get in your way they have to notice you, gauge the speed of your car, consider where you are headed, and swerve in at exactly the right time to cause you to slam on the brakes, yet not cause an accident. That is some effort. The simpler and thus more likely explanation is that they didn’t see you. It was a mistake. There was no intent. So why would you assume the former? Why do our minds make these kinds of connections when the logic says otherwise?" — From The Great Mental Models by Shane Parrish

The spotlight effect refers to the tendency for individuals to believe they are the center of attention and their life is a performance for others to consume. We all exhibit the spotlight effect to varying degrees, imagining that we occupy more mental real estate in the minds of others than is true.

There is a good chance that you will remember the last few embarrassing things you did around friends, while imagining they remember them too. But, can you recall the last embarrassing thing a friend did? Probably not, since you were too busy at the time thinking about your own behavior. What makes you think other people are any different?

Practical Advice

1. The faster you read, the less you learn

“Several teams of scientists have spent years figuring out: Can you make humans read things really, really fast? They found that you can—but it always comes at a cost. These teams took ordinary people and got them to read much faster than they ordinarily would; with training, and with practice, it sort of works. They can run their eyes over the words quickly and retain something of what they are seeing. But if you then test them on what they read, you’ll discover that the faster you make them go, the less they will understand. More speed means less comprehension.

“Scientists then studied professional speed-readers—and they discovered that even though they are obviously better at it than the rest of us, the same thing happens. This showed there’s just a maximum limit for how quickly humans can absorb information, and trying to bust through that barrier simply busts your brain’s ability to understand it instead.” — From Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

We cannot remember what we read. After one month, we may only remember 20% of the book and have a vague idea of another 5%. This is because the less information we recall, the less we retain. If you've learned a second language and then haven't practiced it for a year, you've experienced the forgetting curve.

Scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus is credited with developing the forgetting curve. The following chart shows that after just one day, almost 70% of the information has been forgotten:

Hermann Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve

Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that combats this retention problem. Using flashcards, this method takes advantage of the psychological spacing effect, which shows that information is more easily assimilated into long-term memory when it is spaced out.

Piotr Wozniak developed SuperMemo in the 1980s, building on Hermann Ebbinghaus' research on spaced repetition. Overlaying the forgetting curve with spaced repetition produces the following graph:

Piotr Wozniak Forgetting Curve

Our ability to recall information increases by retrieving it at specific intervals, thus committing it to our long-term memory.

There are now hundreds of flashcard apps that use the spaced repetition technique. Anki, for instance, is a free option popular among medical students. I use Mochi, which is available on all platforms.

2. Straw man, ad hominem and the motte-and-bailey fallacy

“Foremost among informal fallacies is the straw man, the effigy of an opponent that is easier to knock over than the real thing.

​“Just as arguers can stealthily replace an opponent’s proposition by one that is easier to attack, they can replace their own proposition with one that is easier to defend.

​“They can move the goalposts, demanding that we ‘defund the police’ but then explaining that they only mean reallocating part of its budget to emergency responders. (Rationality cognoscenti call it the motte-and-bailey fallacy, after the medieval castle with a cramped but impregnable tower into which one can retreat when invaders attack the more desirable but less defensible courtyard.)” — From Rationality by Steven Pinker

Straw men are used to intentionally distort an opponent's position so they can attack the effigy rather than what was said. If you're one of the 37M people who have watched Dr. Jordan Peterson's interview with Channel 4's Cathy Newman, you will have seen this play out. Rather than responding to Peterson's points, Newman would begin each sentence with, “So what you're saying is…” setting up her straw man.

Using a straw man is not dissimilar to ad hominem, when an opponent insults the character of the presenter rather than displaying a rebuttal to their argument. We've all seen this play out on social media and in presidential debates. Politicians use this trick by purposefully leaking information that casts their opponents in a bad light. Undermining someone's character does not diminish the validity of their argument, yet this tactic continues to work. Online, I saw a funny analogy comparing the ad hominem fallacy to running out of bullets and throwing the gun at your opponent. Christopher Hitchens famously said, "I always think it's a sign of victory when they move onto the ad hominem."

The motte-and-bailey fallacy is a reverse straw man. The bailey refers to someone's principal point, which is often a controversial, sweeping claim that shares similarities with the easier-to-defend motte.

The motte is a diluted version of the main argument, sometimes an undeniable truth.

The arguer will move to the motte when their bailey is attacked, then claim that the bailey has not been refuted as the motte hasn't fallen. By conflating the two positions, they run a classic bait and switch, moving the goalposts of their argument until they prevail in the debate. Here's a short YouTube video with more.

Quotes to Ponder

1. Ralph Waldo Emerson on books as the building blocks of the mind:

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

2. George Orwell on motivated reasoning:

"We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right."

​Thank you for reading,

Matthew Vere

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