The ethic of hand-washing and community epistemic practice

by Steve Ray­hawk and Anna Sala­mon. (Joint au­thor­ship; there’s cur­rently no way to no­tate that in the Red­dit code base.)

Re­lated to: Use the Na­tive Architecture

When cholera moves through coun­tries with poor drink­ing wa­ter san­i­ta­tion, it ap­par­ently be­comes more viru­lent. When it moves through coun­tries that have clean drink­ing wa­ter (more ex­actly, coun­tries that re­li­ably keep fe­cal mat­ter out of the drink­ing wa­ter), it be­comes less viru­lent. The the­ory is that cholera faces a trade­off be­tween rapidly copy­ing within its hu­man host (so that it has more copies to spread) and keep­ing its host well enough to wan­der around in­fect­ing oth­ers. If per­son-to-per­son trans­mis­sion is cholera’s only means of spread­ing, it will evolve to keep its host well enough to spread it. If it can in­stead spread through the drink­ing wa­ter (and thus spread even from hosts who are too ill to go out), it will evolve to­ward in­creased lethal­ity. (Crit­ics here.)

I’m steal­ing this line of think­ing from my friend Jen­nifer Ro­driguez-Muel­ler, but: I’m cu­ri­ous whether any­one’s got­ten analo­gous re­sults for the progress and mu­ta­tion of ideas, among com­mu­ni­ties with differ­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion me­dia and/​or differ­ent habits for de­cid­ing which ideas to adopt and pass on. Are there differ­ences be­tween re­li­gions that are passed down ver­ti­cally (par­ent to child) vs. hori­zon­tally (peer to peer), since the former do bet­ter when their bear­ers raise more chil­dren? Do mass me­dia such as ra­dio, TV, news­pa­pers, or print­ing presses de­crease the func­tion­al­ity of the av­er­age per­son’s ideas, by al­low­ing ideas to spread in a man­ner that is less de­pen­dent on their av­er­age host’s pres­tige and in­fluence? (The in­tu­ition here is that pres­tige and in­fluence might be pos­i­tively cor­re­lated with the func­tion­al­ity of the host’s ideas, at least in some do­mains, while the con­tin­gen­cies de­ter­min­ing whether an idea spreads through mass me­dia in­stru­ments might have less to do with func­tion­al­ity.)

Ex­tend­ing this anal­ogy—most of us were taught as chil­dren to wash our hands. We were given the ra­tio­nale, not only of keep­ing our­selves from get­ting sick, but also of mak­ing sure we don’t in­fect oth­ers. There’s an ethic of san­i­tari­ness that draws from the ethic of be­ing good com­mu­nity mem­bers.

Sup­pose we like­wise imag­ine that each of us con­tain a va­ri­ety of be­liefs, some well-founded and some not. Can we make an ethic of “epistemic hy­giene” to de­scribe prac­tices that will se­lec­tively cause our more ac­cu­rate be­liefs to spread, and cause our less ac­cu­rate be­liefs to stay con tained, even in cases where the in­di­vi­d­u­als spread­ing those be­liefs don’t know which is which? That is: (1) is there a set of sim­ple, ac­cessible prac­tices (analo­gous to hand-wash­ing) that will help good ideas spread and bad ideas stay con­tained; and (2) is there a nice set of metaphors and moral in­tu­itions that can keep the prac­tices al­ive in a com­mu­nity? Do we have such an ethic already, on OB or in in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles more gen­er­ally? (Also, (3) we would like some other term be­sides “epistemic hy­giene” that would be less Or­wellian and/​or harder to abuse—any sug­ges­tions? Another word­ing we’ve heard is “good cog­ni­tive cit­i­zen­ship”, which sounds rel­a­tively less prone to abuse.)

Hon­esty is an ob­vi­ous can­di­date prac­tice, and hon­esty has much sup­port from hu­man moral in­tu­itions. But “hon­esty” is too vague to pin­point the part that’s ac­tu­ally use­ful. Be­ing hon­est about one’s ev­i­dence and about the ac­tual causes of one’s be­liefs is valuable for dis­t­in­guish­ing ac­cu­rate from mis­taken be­liefs. How­ever, a habit of fo­cussing at­ten­tion on ev­i­dence and on the ac­tual causes of one’s own as well as one’s in­ter­locu­tor’s be­liefs would be just as valuable, and such a prac­tice is not part of the tra­di­tional re­quire­ments of “hon­esty”. Mean­while, I see lit­tle rea­son to ex­pect a so­cially-en­dorsed prac­tice of “hon­esty” about one’s “sincere” but care­lessly as­sem­bled opinions (about poli­tics, re­li­gion, the neigh­bors’ char­ac­ter, or any­thing else) to se­lec­tively pro­mote ac­cu­rate ideas.

Another can­di­date prac­tice is the prac­tice of only pass­ing on ideas one has one­self ver­ified from em­piri­cal ev­i­dence (as in the ethic of tra­di­tional ra­tio­nal­ity, where ar­gu­ments from au­thor­ity are banned, and one at­tains virtue by check­ing ev­ery­thing for one­self). This prac­tice sounds plau­si­bly use­ful against group failure modes where bad ideas are kept in play, and passed on, in large part be­cause so many oth­ers be­lieve the idea (e.g. re­li­gious be­liefs, or the per­sis­tence of Aris­totelian physics in me­dieval scholas­ti­cism; this is the mo­ti­va­tion for the schol­arly norm of cit­ing pri­mary liter­a­ture such as his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments or origi­nal pub­lished ex­per­i­ments). But limit­ing in­di­vi­d­u­als’ shar­ing to the (tiny) set of be­liefs they can them­selves check sounds ex­tremely costly. Rolf Nel­son’s sug­ges­tion that we find words to ex­plic­itly sep­a­rate “in­di­vi­d­ual im­pres­sions” (im­pres­sions based only on ev­i­dence we’ve our­selves ver­ified) from “be­liefs” (which in­clude ev­i­dence from oth­ers’ im­pres­sions) sounds promis­ing as a means of avoid­ing cir­cu­lar ev­i­dence while also benefit­ing from oth­ers’ ev­i­dence. I’m cu­ri­ous how many here are ha­bit­u­ally dis­t­in­guish­ing im­pres­sions from be­liefs. (I am. I find it use­ful.)

Are there other nat­u­ral ideas? Per­haps so­cial norms that ac­cord sta­tus for rea­soned opinion-change in the face of new good ev­i­dence, rather than norms that dock sta­tus from the “losers” of de­bates? Or so­cial norms that take care to leave one’s in­ter­locu­tor a line of re­treat in all di­rec­tions—to take care to avoid set­ting up con­sis­tency and com­mit­ment pres­sures that might wedge them to­ward ei­ther your ideas or their own? (I’ve never seen this strat­egy im­ple­mented as a com­mu­nity norm. Some peo­ple con­scien­tiously avoid “rhetor­i­cal tricks” or “sales tech­niques” for get­ting their in­ter­locu­tor to adopt their ideas; but I’ve never seen a so­cial norm of care­fully pre­vent­ing one’s in­ter­locu­tor from hav­ing sta­tus- or con­sis­tency pres­sures to­ward en­trenchedly keep­ing their own pre-ex­ist­ing ideas.) Th­ese norms strike me as plau­si­bly helpful, if we could man­age to im­ple­ment them. How­ever, they ap­pear difficult to in­te­grate with hu­man in­stincts and moral in­tu­itions around pu­rity and hand-wash­ing, whereas hon­esty and em­piri­cism fit com­par­a­tively well into hu­man pu­rity in­tu­itions. Per­haps this is why these so­cial norms are much less prac­ticed.

In any case:

(1) Are ethics of “epistemic hy­giene”, and of the com­mu­nity im­pact of one’s speech prac­tices, worth pur­su­ing? Are they already in place? Are there al­ter­na­tive moral frames that one might pur­sue in­stead? Are hu­man in­stincts around pu­rity too dan­ger­ously pow­er­ful and in­flex­ible for sus­tain­able use in com­mu­nity epistemic prac­tice?

(2) What com­mu­nity prac­tices do you ac­tu­ally find use­ful, for cre­at­ing com­mu­nity struc­tures where ac­cu­rate ideas are se­lec­tively pro­moted?