Reviewed by Peter Clarke
Julia Galef, a leading figure in the rationalist community, first introduced the term “scout mindset” to a widespread audience with her 2016 TED Talk, “Why you think you’re right, even when you’re wrong.” Her first book expands upon the talk, providing an engaging and detailed guide to clear thinking.
Galef defines “scout mindset” as “the motivation to see things as they are, not as you wish they were.” When we engage in heated conversations, we have the choice to either play the role of the soldier or the scout. The soldier will defend their position at all costs, even if that means overlooking evidence or deploying self-deception. For the soldier, to lose an argument is to be defeated. This is in contrast to the scout, who participates in mapmaking rather than combat. Finding out that you’re wrong as a scout doesn’t mean you lose; it means you revise your map for a more accurate view of reality.
The Scout Mindset lays out a strong case for playing the role of the scout—not just in debates, but anytime in daily life when it may seem convenient to believe and act on falsehoods. “Increasingly, our world is becoming one that rewards the ability to see clearly,” Galef writes. To “see clearly” means noticing bias, learning how to be wrong, and escaping your echo chamber. These are just a few of the topics Galef expounds upon in her book.
The final section of The Scout Mindset is all about identity. When a belief becomes part of your identity, it’s impossible for others to challenge that belief without you feeling antagonized. This is often true of religious and political beliefs, but many other beliefs regularly become personal. While there are positives about associating certain beliefs with your identity, there are also downsides. Specifically, you lose the ability to dispassionately analyze your beliefs once they’ve become strapped to your identity. The solution Galef proposes is to hold your identity lightly. “Holding an identity lightly,” she writes, “means thinking of it in a matter-of-fact way, rather than as a central source of pride and meaning in your life. It’s a description, not a flag to be waved proudly.” This section of the book is a challenge, but a welcome one.
As we all know, it’s not easy to be rational, particularly when our most personal beliefs are questioned. But for anyone committed to seeing beyond their own reality-distorting biases, The Scout Mindset is an exciting place to start.
Peter Clarke is the author of The Singularity Survival Guide and the editor-in-chief of Jokes Literary Review. See: petermclarke.com.