The Scout Mindset—A Review

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/10/the-scout-mindset-a-review/

An interesting review, and I suspect that the Scout Mindset is a useful concept. But, as the reviewer suggests, I hardly want to run out and buy the book, if it is essentially a push to improve a New Atheism. Yes, I understand the assessment of Spock’s flaw, that he insists on ‘pure rationality’ which might be mostly left brain logic, with no credit to the importance of right-brain holistic thinking, including some understanding of the importance of ‘emotions’ in assessing what is good, desirable.

And I buy the idea that Spock, in his ‘rationality’ is actually closed-minded, though in the context of the show, I don’t find Kirk, McCoy or Scotty very open-minded. The principal characters of Star Trek TNG, in contrast are mostly more open-minded. They express awe and wonder, and wrestle with their situations and possibilities, in useful ways. And the whole show has an openness about it. But let’s not spend too much time here in critiquing the different versions of Star Trek.

it is not epistemiological hygiene which will keep us safe. It is not just about our ability to detect and work around those damned ‘cognitive biases’ which cloud our thinking. And if we could only keep our ‘thinking’ cleaner, it would be better. Paradoxically, that ‘cleaner’ thinking , working on fine-tuning itself, might be narrow and less open. It is more open to seeing some aspirations beyond pure reason, but it treats them as augmentations of ‘human rationality.’

But to a theist – which I am --It is in an exercise in running around with blindfolds.

Seems that this would be a good pairing with The Happiness Hypothesis and Descartes’s Error. Both capture that humans are not pure logical beings but more like a logical rider on an emotional elephant.

What is interesting about the ‘scouts’ vs. the ‘soldiers’ is that scouts can appreciate soldiers but soldiers tend to be very very threatened by scouts. Being a scout is not an enviable position because you get much more positive feedback as a soldier. Just look at how our scouts are the ones getting canceled and attacked by legions of soldiers on both sides of the political aisle.

How do we set up areas where scouts can scout and soldiers can soldier (and not kill the scouts) and we can move humanity forward.

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Try this on for size: the ubiquity of the soldier mindset shows that we were soldiers. That is, our particular subspecies, Sapiens, were, name notwithstanding, not characterized chiefly by smarts; instead we were (and still are) warriors, killers, dominators. Neanderthals were smarter - maybe by quite a lot; we more violent. By interbreeding we got some of their smarts (note that average African I.Q. is 60) - combine smarts with aggressiveness and you get a pretty good recipe for world domination.

I wonder if Neanderthals were pacifists; perhaps people of higher mind who saw full well the futility, immorality, and/or shortsightedness of armed conflict, violence, murder (including organized murder). That could make a good movie or novella but it is pure speculation, just my imagination.

Maybe they had the Scout Mindset.

There is a logical fallacy when we look at history and come to the conclusion that we naturally prone to the soldier mindset. What this overlooks is that the Enlightenment project solves problems on a daily basis, and has made huge strides in improving the human condition. The problem is that we are not very good at solving thorny issues, and these problems offer us a flawed availability heuristic on the relative success of our efforts. It is precisely because these problems are so contentious and fraught that they tend to eat up more than their share of our intellectual capacity and loom larger in our imaginations.

And I think this is key to our understanding of why people adopt either a scout or soldier mindset- the former is based upon the premise of retaining intellectual detachment to solve problems empirically, whilst the latter draws upon our emotional attachment and investment to a particular issue. This probably only exacerbates the issue even further, because whilst those prone to the scout mindset probably tend to distribute their efforts more equally across problems, treating the world as a collection of intellectual puzzles to be solved, there is ample evidence that social movements tend to draw in those most prone to the soldier mindset, because they offer the emotional ‘hit’ of fighting for a cause.

This mindset of emotional attachment to a particular issue makes for terrible decision-making- the same cognitive processes which govern emotional attachment and make us want to fight for a particular cause are also the ones that are triggered in response to a perceived threat, putting out brains in a reactive and defensive mindset. At a social level, this causes the tribalism and oppositional politics with which we’ve become so familiar, because there is safety in numbers and the ideological solidarity of a groups mindset is just as important to intellectual logistics as any forward planning which might occur for a military campaign in the physical world.

It’s also one of the reason why thorny problems tend to remain thorny and intransigent. The group dynamic doesn’t deal well with ideological dissention in the ranks, and ideological movements tend to coalesce around a preferred narrative of monocausal diagnostics, as well as a monocausal prescription as solution.

Ironically, the solution to thorny problems in doubtless the scout mindset with its emotional detachment. Only when a problem is exposed to the dynamics of disconfirmation and empiricism, with all the benefits which viewpoint diversity brings, is a thorny problem likely to be solved. But it not an approach which well equipped to accept, because the intellectual armistice this would represent requires that we not only stop seeing our political opponents as adversaries, but also leads to the inevitable dissolution of the group to which we have become so attached, with its group solidarity and mutual support.

I wish I had read this article before I wrote my most recent essay, which is free to view and comment on my Substack. It largely covers the same issue in an applied context:

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I think you misread the review:

Galef is an atheist but she’s not an anti-theist, which the New Atheists obviously were. This strikes me as a qualitative difference, not a quantitative one.

Could you expand on this metaphor? What does the blindfold represent and how does belief in God remove it?

Do you have any evidence for these claims?

Very well put. That said, I don’t think a Scout mindset (despite its very real benefits) could resolve all problems. Some, like the abortion debate, are based on a fundamental differences in values and philosophical commitments. Tribalism undoubtedly intensifies debates like this, but the elimination of myside bias would not necessarily enable us to resolve them. It would, however, open up more space for consensus and compromise.

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I think I read that right, but it’s not a big deal. The difference between militant atheist and firm agnostic is how much energy one spends denouncing the possibility of a gods or spirtuatual powers, or just saying relatively politely, that nothing I tell you can make you interested in the powers of gods or spiritual forces. Either way, the metaphor of the blinders is if one has consciously excluded the possibility of external powers, so that, even if a god-force did somehow alter one’s knowledge and choices in the present moment, you could never accept that it was a god-thing or spiritual reaching ion an touching your physical brain structured in cells and molecules and neurons.
But between soldiers and scouts, there are some useful divisions of how we look at the world. But it is still the physical world, scouts perhaps having readings of emotions.

Butm there are also Shamans, who detect influences from the invisible world.And that is my reference to ‘wearing blinders’, it is either group, soldiers or scou ts, only wanting to see thru their five senses,

Perhaps there are other ways of knowing. That is really the only question I ask But in a world where we are considered insane, just for wanting to consider what might be greater, even suggesting the possibilty is a stymie.

That’s not the case at all. We were more prosocial and could exist in larger groups. There is strong evidence for cooperation and mating between groups. European and Asian groups have Neanderthal DNA which ranges between 2% and 7%. The elimination of Neanderthals probably resulted from our disease carrying potential. Smaller groups have less genetic diversity and are more likely to be eliminated by new pathogens. Think Native Americans, but with pathogens which routinely wiped out entire population instead of many or most of them. It’s ironic really given that German geneticist have determined that one of the main reasons for lower fatality and hospitalisation amongst white and (to a lesser extent) Asian population than African ones is because of Neanderthal DNA. Maybe we only mated with the ones which survived our diseases when they first encountered us…

It’s a bit like the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the British Isles. A more extensive study of every dig site in the UK has shown almost no signs of violent conflict during the Anglo-Saxon influx. The reason for the Anglo-Saxon supplanting of the Britons were quite different. The British nobility lived on a hill and expected to claim a share of the economy. The Anglo-Saxon nobility built there mead halls in the centre of the community. Their warrior class was expected to contribute labour when they weren’t practicing fighting (much like the Roman military). They were better leaders and more fun to boot! It is highly likely that they completely reinvigorated a stagnant economy, which has lapsed into darkness with the withdrawal of Rome.

Don’t forget it is was the Anglo-Saxons which gave us English Common Law, where even a king (or a government) couldn’t take what wasn’t rightfully his (theirs). It is likely the history of the Anglo-Saxon was a smear job by the Norman aristocracy, who wanted to revert to a more primitive and barbaric form of law, where government is the master, the citizen the slave.

This source still places too much emphasis on the Romans- a culture who had become weak and decadent through the usurpation of the market by the state. One has to wonder if so much of the Germanic DNA of the British population arrived much earlier than the Anglo Saxon period, why did they abandon so much of their Celtic and Roman influences, and switch to an Anglo Saxon culture? Probably because the Anglo Saxon system was fairer, more advanced and conducive to prosperity. Unlike the Normans or the Vikings, change didn’t happen at the point of a sword.

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When I wrote “Try this on for size” I meant to say that this is speculation, think about it, see how well (or not) it fits.

That we as a species have been violent - is there any evidence needed? Pretty much all of history demonstrates this. Though Pinker makes a good case that we’ve gotten better. Maybe living up to our name. Time will tell. Looks to me like our tendency to violence is at present, perhaps temporarily, suppressed. And could come to the fore again.

You should probably respond to Geary’s post above – he addressed your claim directly.

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Geary’s a good writer whom I respect. As for me - I’m not really interested arguing a point; in this case whether our ancestors and we as a species were/are violent, versus able to co-operate in larger groups, versus disease-tolerant compared to other subspecies of Homo. It’s all speculation really. All these theses could be true, and/or all more or less false.

The other reason for not responding, besides that debating different speculations would be fruitless, is that I’m not a good arguer/debater - nor really into it. Speculating is more my thing. Maybe someone will take something of value from something I write, maybe not.

“Good and bad, happy and sad - all thoughts vanish into thin air, like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”

Cheers

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Just found another speculation, regarding how much Neanderthal we got, and whether or not and how important it is.

Looks like at some point “we” (I’m not quite clear about how much Neanderthal vs. Sapiens) got an enhanced capability to deal with PAH’s - Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. I know this is important from experience with routing truck bridges through neigborhoods (diesel exhaust contains PAHs). Looks like somewhere along the line we got some defenses against PAHs, presumably so that we could better tolerate (indoor?) fires, with their concomitant smoke.

So, it’s possible to speculate that we outcompeted other Homo subspecies due to better ability to cooperate in bigger groups, or some combination of their intelligence and our violence, or increased ability to tolerate PAHs (which benefits us by improving our diet).

It’s all speculation - very interesting, never something to argue about.

“Take a stand and make your mark” - but not on this issue. On this one, we can all get along while retaining our own pet views.

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