Associated vs Relevant
Also cross-posted to my blog.
The List of Nuances (which is actually more of a list of fine distinctions—a fine distinction which only occurred to its authors after the writing of it) has one glaring omission, which is the distinction between associated and relevant. A List of Nuances is largely a set of reminders that we aren’t omniscient, but it also serves the purpose of listing actual subtleties and calling for readers to note the subtleties rather than allowing themselves to fall into associationism, applying broad cognitive clusters where fine distinctions are available. The distinction between associated and relevant is critical to this activity.
An association can be anything related to a subject. To be relevant is a higher standard: it means that there is an articulated argument connecting to a question on the table, such that the new statement may well push the question one way or the other (perhaps after checking other relevant facts). This is close to the concept of value of information.
Whether something is relevant or merely associated can become confused when epistemic defensiveness comes into play. From A List of Nuances:
10. What You Mean vs. What You Think You Mean
Very often, people will say something and then that thing will be refuted. The common response to this is to claim you meant something slightly different, which is more easily defended.
We often do this without noticing, making it dangerous for thinking. It is an automatic response generated by our brains, not a conscious decision to defend ourselves from being discredited. You do this far more often than you notice. The brain fills in a false memory of what you meant without asking for permission.
As mentioned in Epistemic Trust, a common reason for this is when someone says something associated to the topic at hand, which turns out not to be relevant.
There is no shame in saying associated things. In a free-ranging discussion, the conversation often moves forward from topic to topic by free-association. All of the harm here comes from claiming that something is relevant when it is merely associated. Because this is often a result of knee-jerk self-defense, it is critical to repeat: there is no shame in saying something merely associated with the topic at hand!
It is quite important, however, to spot the difference. Association-based thinking is one of the signs of a death spiral, as a large associated memeplex reinforces itself to the point where it seems like a single, simple idea. A way to detect this trap is to try to write down the idea in list form and evaluate the different parts. If you can’t explicitly articulate the unseen connection you feel between all the ideas in the memeplex, it may not exist.
Utilizing the power of associations is a powerful tool for creating a good story (although, see item #3 here for a counterpoint). Repeating themes can create a powerful feeling of relevance, which may be good for convincing people of a memeplex. Furthermore, association is a wonderful exploratory tool. However, it can turn into an enemy of articulated argument; for this reason, it is important to tread carefully (especially in one’s own mind).
Some may have noticed that I have been cross-posting quite frequently. I am taking part in a challenge to write regularly for LessWrong; personally I am trying to make a once per week schedule, even if it means short essays like this.