Monday, March 16, 2009

The Downside

Today I'm feeling slightly irritated with skepticism. This doesn't happen often, so it's possibly worth discussing why.

Skepticism isn't a state so much as a goal. It involves a constant churn of invalidated notions, and an excessive focus on seeing, hearing and speaking no falsehood. As Feynman puts it: "The first principle is not to fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."

In general, the effects of this are good. I have a somewhat better idea of what is sensible than the average human being. I'm better able to recognise when the emperor has no clothes. I recognise when my beliefs are not secure, and I am careful to state any caveats that may apply.

In many situations (particularly the regulation-happy financial industry), this is a good thing. In other situations, it sucks...

In particular, I've been reading about Cold Reading and Bavarian Fire Drills and similar psychological tomfoolery. I understand far better than most how these principles work. And yet I know I'll probably never manage to pull one of them off.

That's because I'm pathologically honest. If I were to try bluffing my way past a gate guard with the tried-and-true "don't you know who I AM???" tactic, I'd be forced to stop and say "well actually you probably don't know who I am, but you should let me through anyway. Pretty please? Alternatively, don't hit me too harOWWWWW!"

Needless to say, this is sub-optimal. Especially when the time comes for salary renegotiation.

There's really only one solution for it: I need to train myself to lie better. Now in the scientific world this would be a bad thing, because it would mess with people's "data hygiene" (although scientists tend to have access to fairly strong "data disinfectants"). In a long-term friendly relationship, this would be a bad thing, because it would damage the basis of trust. In many other situations, it's just unnecessarily cruel.

But in adversarial situations, such as the salary renegotiation or bartering in a market or dealing with evangelicals*, effective lying - or at least the charisma that's required to lie or bullshit effectively - is a survival trait.

Next question: how precisely does one exercise this faculty? Answers on a postcard.

* I've got into a habit where, if I wind up in a conversation with someone trying to convert me, I make a comment like: "Look, I've been in this debate for years, and I know all the arguments really well. So if I come out on top, that doesn't necessarily mean a lot."

This is the point where I realise I'm doing something wrong.

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