Salvage Epistemology

A funny thing happens with woo sometimes, in the rationality community. There’s a frame that says: this is a mix of figurative stuff and dumb stuff, let’s try to figure out what the figurative stuff is pointing at and salvage it. Let’s call this “salvage epistemology”. Unambiguous examples include the rationality community’s engagement with religions, cold-reading professions like psychics, bodywork, and chaos magic. Ambiguous examples include intensive meditation, Circling, and many uses of psychedelics.

The salvage epistemology frame got locally popular in parts of the rationality community for awhile. And this is a basically fine thing to do, in a context where you have hyper-analytical programmers who are not at risk of buying into the crazy, but who do need a lens that will weaken their perceptual filters around social dynamics, body language, and muscle tension.

But there’s a bad thing happens when you have a group that are culturally adjacent to the hyper-analytical programmers, but who aren’t that sort of person themselves. They can’t, or shouldn’t, take for granted that they’re not at risk of falling into the crazy. For them, salvage epistemology disarms an important piece of their immune system.

I think salvage epistemology is infohazardous to a subset of people, and we should use it less, disclaim it more, and be careful to notice when it’s leading people in over their heads.