Scott Alexander on Nonfiction Writing

Scott writes the Slate Star Codex blog.

  1. Divide things into small chunks
  2. Variety is the spice of life (add images etc.)
  3. Keep your flow of ideas strong
  4. Learn what should and shouldn’t be repeated.
  5. Use microhumor
  6. Use concrete examples
  7. Figure out who you’re trying to convince, then use the right tribal signals
  8. Anticipate and defuse counterarguments
  9. Use strong concept handles
  10. Recognize that applying these rules will probably start disastrously

Details of the above at:


The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect

can a giant eraser remove the past?

“Can a giant raser remove the past?” Typewriter Eraser. Scale X, 1999, by Claes Oldenburg (American, born 1929, Sweden) and Coosje van Bruggen (American, born 1942, The Netherlands). Photo by Woodleywonders via Flicker (cc)

Came across this whilst reading Felix Salmon’s superb “Why you can’t trust journalism“. He links to Seekerblog’s 2006 post on “The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect“, who in turn quotes Michael Criton’s 2002 speech “Why Speculate?“:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

I have noticed this time and time again. People who lambaste the media for supporting something they oppose will uncritically quote the same media when they suddenly find themselves in agreement.

Another area I notice this is with Serbs commenting on other countries. Serbs have been demonized in the media for over 20 years. They have suffered the most appalling slanders, yet it has not equipped many of them at all to spot the same treatment of others.

When Denmark recently came under fire for extending its social welfare laws of asset confiscation to migrants, I had Serbian friends in all my timelines writing “F*ck Denmark!”, not wondering at all if the story was being portrayed accurately (which it was not).

See also:

Truth Leakage – How politicians and journalists often reveal the truth as metadata or background material when discussing a tangential topic.

Miller’s Law

From Wikipedia:

Miller’s law, part of his theory of communication, was formulated by George Miller, Princeton Professor and psychologist.

It instructs us to suspend judgment about what someone is saying so we can first understand them without imbuing their message with our own personal interpretations.

The law states: “To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.”[1] [2]

The point is not to blindly accept what people say, but to do a better job of listening for understanding. “Imagining what it could be true of” is another way of saying to consider the consequences of the truth, but to also think about what must be true for the speaker’s “truth” to make sense.

On Bullshit


[Update: After I posted this I came across a great study –  “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” [PDF] – freshly published in November 2015. Well worth a read. I also recently came across this old but great post from Scott Berkun “How to Detect Bullshit“]

Because I see so much of this  on Facebook, I wanted to post the classic essay “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.

Here is Wikipedia on the essay:

“On Bullshit (2005), by Harry G. Frankfurt, is a philosophical essay that presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyzes the applications of bullshit in the contexts of communication. As such, bullshit can be neither true nor false; hence, the bullshitter is someone whose principal aim — when uttering or publishing bullshit — is to impress the listener and the reader with words that communicate an impression that something is being or has been done, words that are neither true nor false, and so obscure the facts of the matter being discussed. In contrast, the liar must know the truth of the matter under discussion, in order to better conceal it from the listener or the reader being deceived with a lie; while the bullshitter’s sole concern is personal advancement and advantage to their own agenda.”

Here are some quotes:

Humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point.

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug. …the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.

…Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth –  this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.

…The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

…Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words, upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretence that this connection is being sustained. They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some degree unconstrained by a concern with truth.

…It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

…Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled –  whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s  affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of scepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit  of an alternative ideal, sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

…Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

See also

Wikipedia’s great article on Lies that described the many types of lies.

The BBC Ethic page on Lying

St Augustine on the 8 types of lie


The War on the Exceptional

Is there a war on the exception (radical) to the detriment of humanity?

Start with this “In Our Time” episode on Kierkegaard, the read these two essays by Anthony Judge:


“Eristic, from the ancient Greek word Eris meaning wrangle or strife, often refers to a type of argument where the participants fight and quarrel without any reasonable goal.

The aim usually is to win the argument and/or to engage in a conflict for the sole purpose of wasting time through arguments, not to potentially discover a true or probable answer to any specific question or topic. Eristic is arguing for the sake of conflict as opposed to the seeking of conflict resolution.” via Eristic – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

See also “The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument (1831:

The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument is an acidulous and sarcastic treatise written by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in sarcastic deadpan.[1] In it, Schopenhauer examines a total of thirty-eight methods of showing up one’s opponent in a debate. He introduces his essay with the idea that philosophers have concentrated in ample measure on the rules of logic, but have not (especially since the time of Immanuel Kant) engaged with the darker art of the dialectic, of controversy. Whereas the purpose of logic is classically said to be a method of arriving at the truth, dialectic, says Schopenhauer, “…on the other hand, would treat of the intercourse between two rational beings who, because they are rational, ought to think in common, but who, as soon as they cease to agree like two clocks keeping exactly the same time, create a disputation, or intellectual contest.” via The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument

How to ask good questions

Surprisingly important skill that most of us are bad at. In a nutshell:

  • Don’t ramble on—terminate the sentence at the question mark.
  • Get comfortable with silence.
  • Start with “who, what, when, where, how, or why” for more meaningful answers.
  • Don’t fish for the answer you want.
  • Stop nodding if you don’t understand—ask a follow-up instead.
  • If you get a non-answer, approach it again from a different angle.
  • Rephrase the answer in your own words.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.

Read on: