Thinking about how to orient to a hostile information environment, when you don’t have the skills or the inclination to become an epistemology nerd

Successfully propagandized people don’t think they’ve been propagandized; if you would expect to feel the same way in either case, you have to distinguish between the two possibilities using something other than your feelings.

Duncan Sabien

I wish my dad understood this point.

But it’s pretty emotionally stressful to live in a world where you can’t trust your info streams and you can’t really have a grasp on what’s going on.

Like, if I tell my dad not to trust the New York times, because it will regularly misinform him, and that “science” as in “trust the science” is a fake buzzword, about as likely to be rooted in actual scientific epistemology as not, he has few reactions. But one of them is “What do you want me to do? Become a rationalist?”

And he has a point. He’s just not going to read covid preprints himself, to piece together what’s going on. That would take hours and hours of time that he doesn’t want to spend, it would be hard and annoying and it isn’t like he would have calibrated Bayesian takes at the end.

(To be clear, I didn’t do that with covid either, but I could do it, at least somewhat, if I needed to, and I did do little pieces of it, which puts me on a firmer footing in knowing which epistemic processes to trust.)

Give that he’s not going to do that, and I don’t really think that he should do that, what should he do?

One answer is “just downgrade your confidence in everything. Have a blanket sense of ‘actually, I don’t really know what’s going on.’ ” A fundamental rationalist skill is not making stuff up, and saying “I don’t know.” I did spend a few hours tying to orient on the Ukraine situation, and forcing myself to get all the way to the point of making some quantiative predictions (so that I have the opportunity to be surprised, and notice that I am surprised). But my fundamental stance is “I don’t understand what’s going on, and I know that I don’t understand. (Also here are some specific things that I don’t know.)”

…Ok. Maybe that is feasible. It’s pretty hard to live in a world where you fundamentally don’t know what’s happening, where people assume you have some tribal opinion about stuff and your answer is “I don’t know, I think my views are basically informed by propaganda, and I’m not skilled enough or invested enough to try to do better, so I’m going to not believe or promote my takes.”

But maybe this becomes easier if the goal of your orientation in the world is less to have a take on what’s going on, but is instead to prioritize uncertainties: to figure out which questions seem most relevant for understanding, so that you have _some_ map to orient from, even if it is mostly just a map of your uncertainty.

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