Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 19, 2017

Pick the right team, not the right answer (most of the time)

Filed under: Cognitive Science,Cultural Evolution,Group Think — Razib Khan @ 7:07 pm

Often you will hear people say “why do people always engage in ‘group-think'”? As if group-think is always a bad thing! The reality is that group-think is often highly adaptive. That’s why people engage in it. You’re outsourcing expensive cognition to the collective, tradition, or in some cases to someone with expertise.

Of course, there are whole domains of heuristics and biases that developed out of exposing how humans do not reason appropriately, but other researchers have argued that our species’ irrationality is often quite useful in our ancestral evolutionary environment. In other words, a lot of what frustrates is us not a bug, but a feature.

For example, in an ancient pre-modern environment where culture and environment were generally stable reasoning to everything basically consists of reinventing the wheel constantly. The contemplative life may have been the starving life. The “way things have been done” may not always seem perfectly optimal, but they were sufficient.

To give an empirical example of this that I’ve always found sad, the Irish were exceptional among European peasants peoples in taking to a potato monoculture without must hesitation. Believe it or not the Russians were tardy at adoption. This resulted in a massive demographic expansion which saw Ireland’s population peak at around 8,000,000. But the cost of this was the Great Famine, which illustrated how the wholesale adoption of practices which were optimal in the short-term were not optimal evaluated over the long-term (Ireland’s population today is less than 5,000,000, though some of this is due to the culture of emigration which emerged during the Great Famine). Evolution is evaluated over the long-term, so universal cognitive ticks which we see across our species are probably there for a reason, whether as a direct cause, or a side-effect.

Finally, intellectuals who enjoin the masses to not engage in group-think have no difficulty in falling into the same practices when operating outside their own domains of expertise. What this suggests is that “critical-rationalism” is not something that emerges in a vacuum. Rather, it is a cognitive method that develops in a particular cultural context, and individually is often the outcome of confidence and experience gained through years of education and mental practice within a narrow topic.

Getting yourself out of the cave and not misinterpreting the shadows can be hard. And truthfully, it probably wasn’t even optimal. The roaches will inherit the earth long after we’re gone, and they likely never even reflect upon their own selfhood.

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