The Scout Mindset
Reviewing the book by Julia Galef

The Scout Mindset describes the motivation to see things as they are, rather than as you wish they were. Nobody embodies the Scout more than Tiffany Aching, observed by Miss Tick to have both first sight—the ability to see what's really there1—and second thoughts: the thoughts you think about the way you think. Contrast this with the mindset of the Soldier, who—Galef argues—employs motivated reasoning to aggressively defend their existing beliefs and ignore contradicting evidence.

An illustrative example in the book is the London Homeopathic Hospital reporting a Cholera mortality rate of 18 percent—less than half of mainstream hospitals—during the 1850s Cholera pandemic. The council didn't believe in homeopathy and soldiering on excluded this result from their survey data; yet the homeopaths' success was real—it just had nothing to do with homeopathy. If the council had instead investigated and understood how the homeopaths' got their result, they would have saved many lives.

Dealing with uncertainty is an important tool in the Scout's toolbox, and Star Trek's Spock got a harsh—but fair—treatment in the book—as Julia shows his predictions are anti-correlated with reality2. To drive the point home she includes an exercise to test your own confidence calibration; it involves answering 40 questions and note your confidence level, checking the answers and calculate your success rate. I'm overly cautious3—but better calibrated than Spock! When my confidence was:

Finding your confidence level is a skill you can learn, and I really liked Julia's "ball bet" trick in this regard: imagine a box of four balls, one of which is grey. If you think your chances of blindly pulling the grey ball out of the box without looking is better than a business bet you're about to make, your confidence in that business bet is less than 25%.

My chief complaint of the book is that Scout vs Soldier is a clumsy metaphor, since Scouts are also Soldiers; at least in a military context, which the example at the start of the book implies.

Julia weaves characters' stories throughout the book, and use them to display different aspects of the scout—an effective way to hold the reader's attention. Examples include a journalist that corrected their own popular tweet, and an author who ended up denouncing their own best-selling book—after realising it did more harm than good.

There's a whole bunch more I loved about the book, for example the discussions of identity, and leaning in to confusion; but any summary I'd make would either be a pale imitation, or a copyright violation, so I can only recommend you read the book.

My rating: 5/5.


1

And hit it with a frying pan.

2

When Spock thinks something is impossible, it happens 83% of the time. And when he thinks it's more than 99.5% likely, it happens only 17% of the time.

3

I had 10 correct and 1 wrong answers at 55% confidence, 18 correct and 1 wrong at 75% confidence, and 10 correct at 95% confidence.

Posted 7 October 2021 Copyright © Stig Brautaset