The Fallacy of Gray

The So­phis­ti­cate: “The world isn’t black and white. No one does pure good or pure bad. It’s all gray. There­fore, no one is bet­ter than any­one else.”

The Zetet: “Know­ing only gray, you con­clude that all grays are the same shade. You mock the sim­plic­ity of the two-color view, yet you re­place it with a one-color view . . .”

—Marc Stiegler, David’s Sling

I don’t know if the So­phis­ti­cate’s mis­take has an offi­cial name, but I call it the Fal­lacy of Gray. We saw it man­i­fested in the pre­vi­ous es­say—the one who be­lieved that odds of two to the power of seven hun­dred and fifty mil­lion to one, against, meant “there was still a chance.” All prob­a­bil­ities, to him, were sim­ply “un­cer­tain” and that meant he was li­censed to ig­nore them if he pleased.

“The Moon is made of green cheese” and “the Sun is made of mostly hy­dro­gen and he­lium” are both un­cer­tain­ties, but they are not the same un­cer­tainty.

Every­thing is shades of gray, but there are shades of gray so light as to be very nearly white, and shades of gray so dark as to be very nearly black. Or even if not, we can still com­pare shades, and say “it is darker” or “it is lighter.”

Years ago, one of the strange lit­tle for­ma­tive mo­ments in my ca­reer as a ra­tio­nal­ist was read­ing this para­graph from Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, es­pe­cially the sen­tence in bold:

A guilty sys­tem rec­og­nizes no in­no­cents. As with any power ap­para­tus which thinks ev­ery­body’s ei­ther for it or against it, we’re against it. You would be too, if you thought about it. The very way you think places you amongst its en­e­mies. This might not be your fault, be­cause ev­ery so­ciety im­poses some of its val­ues on those raised within it, but the point is that some so­cieties try to max­i­mize that effect, and some try to min­i­mize it. You come from one of the lat­ter and you’re be­ing asked to ex­plain your­self to one of the former. Pre­var­i­ca­tion will be more difficult than you might imag­ine; neu­tral­ity is prob­a­bly im­pos­si­ble. You can­not choose not to have the poli­tics you do; they are not some sep­a­rate set of en­tities some­how de­tach­able from the rest of your be­ing; they are a func­tion of your ex­is­tence. I know that and they know that; you had bet­ter ac­cept it.

Now, don’t write an­gry com­ments say­ing that, if so­cieties im­pose fewer of their val­ues, then each suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tion has more work to start over from scratch. That’s not what I got out of the para­graph.

What I got out of the para­graph was some­thing which seems so ob­vi­ous in ret­ro­spect that I could have con­ceiv­ably picked it up in a hun­dred places; but some­thing about that one para­graph made it click for me.

It was the whole no­tion of the Quan­ti­ta­tive Way ap­plied to life-prob­lems like moral judg­ments and the quest for per­sonal self-im­prove­ment. That, even if you couldn’t switch some­thing from on to off, you could still tend to in­crease it or de­crease it.

Is this too ob­vi­ous to be worth men­tion­ing? I say it is not too ob­vi­ous, for many blog­gers have said of Over­com­ing Bias: “It is im­pos­si­ble, no one can com­pletely elimi­nate bias.” I don’t care if the one is a pro­fes­sional economist, it is clear that they have not yet grokked the Quan­ti­ta­tive Way as it ap­plies to ev­ery­day life and mat­ters like per­sonal self-im­prove­ment. That which I can­not elimi­nate may be well worth re­duc­ing.

Or con­sider an ex­change be­tween Robin Han­son and Tyler Cowen.1 Robin Han­son said that he preferred to put at least 75% weight on the pre­scrip­tions of eco­nomic the­ory ver­sus his in­tu­itions: “I try to mostly just straight­for­wardly ap­ply eco­nomic the­ory, adding lit­tle per­sonal or cul­tural judg­ment.” Tyler Cowen replied:

In my view there is no such thing as “straight­for­wardly ap­ply­ing eco­nomic the­ory” . . . the­o­ries are always ap­plied through our per­sonal and cul­tural filters and there is no other way it can be.

Yes, but you can try to min­i­mize that effect, or you can do things that are bound to in­crease it. And if you try to min­i­mize it, then in many cases I don’t think it’s un­rea­son­able to call the out­put “straight­for­ward”—even in eco­nomics.

“Every­one is im­perfect.” Mo­han­das Gandhi was im­perfect and Joseph Stalin was im­perfect, but they were not the same shade of im­perfec­tion. “Every­one is im­perfect” is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of re­plac­ing a two-color view with a one-color view. If you say, “No one is perfect, but some peo­ple are less im­perfect than oth­ers,” you may not gain ap­plause; but for those who strive to do bet­ter, you have held out hope. No one is perfectly im­perfect, af­ter all.

(When­ever some­one says to me, “Perfec­tion­ism is bad for you,” I re­ply: “I think it’s okay to be im­perfect, but not so im­perfect that other peo­ple no­tice.”)

Like­wise the folly of those who say, “Every sci­en­tific paradigm im­poses some of its as­sump­tions on how it in­ter­prets ex­per­i­ments,” and then act like they’d proven sci­ence to oc­cupy the same level with witch­doc­tor­ing. Every wor­ld­view im­poses some of its struc­ture on its ob­ser­va­tions, but the point is that there are wor­ld­views which try to min­i­mize that im­po­si­tion, and wor­ld­views which glory in it. There is no white, but there are shades of gray that are far lighter than oth­ers, and it is folly to treat them as if they were all on the same level.

If the Moon has or­bited the Earth these past few billion years, if you have seen it in the sky these last years, and you ex­pect to see it in its ap­pointed place and phase to­mor­row, then that is not a cer­tainty. And if you ex­pect an in­visi­ble dragon to heal your daugh­ter of can­cer, that too is not a cer­tainty. But they are rather differ­ent de­grees of un­cer­tainty—this busi­ness of ex­pect­ing things to hap­pen yet again in the same way you have pre­vi­ously pre­dicted to twelve dec­i­mal places, ver­sus ex­pect­ing some­thing to hap­pen that vi­o­lates the or­der pre­vi­ously ob­served. Cal­ling them both “faith” seems a lit­tle too un-nar­row.

It’s a most pe­cu­liar psy­chol­ogy—this busi­ness of “Science is based on faith too, so there!” Typ­i­cally this is said by peo­ple who claim that faith is a good thing. Then why do they say “Science is based on faith too!” in that an­gry-triumphal tone, rather than as a com­pli­ment? And a rather dan­ger­ous com­pli­ment to give, one would think, from their per­spec­tive. If sci­ence is based on “faith,” then sci­ence is of the same kind as re­li­gion—di­rectly com­pa­rable. If sci­ence is a re­li­gion, it is the re­li­gion that heals the sick and re­veals the se­crets of the stars. It would make sense to say, “The priests of sci­ence can blatantly, pub­li­cly, ver­ifi­ably walk on the Moon as a faith-based mir­a­cle, and your priests’ faith can’t do the same.” Are you sure you wish to go there, oh faithist? Per­haps, on fur­ther re­flec­tion, you would pre­fer to re­tract this whole busi­ness of “Science is a re­li­gion too!”

There’s a strange dy­namic here: You try to purify your shade of gray, and you get it to a point where it’s pretty light-toned, and some­one stands up and says in a deeply offended tone, “But it’s not white! It’s gray!” It’s one thing when some­one says, “This isn’t as light as you think, be­cause of spe­cific prob­lems X, Y, and Z.” It’s a differ­ent mat­ter when some­one says an­grily “It’s not white! It’s gray!” with­out point­ing out any spe­cific dark spots.

In this case, I be­gin to sus­pect psy­chol­ogy that is more im­perfect than usual—that some­one may have made a devil’s bar­gain with their own mis­takes, and now re­fuses to hear of any pos­si­bil­ity of im­prove­ment. When some­one finds an ex­cuse not to try to do bet­ter, they of­ten re­fuse to con­cede that any­one else can try to do bet­ter, and ev­ery mode of im­prove­ment is there­after their en­emy, and ev­ery claim that it is pos­si­ble to move for­ward is an offense against them. And so they say in one breath proudly, “I’m glad to be gray,” and in the next breath an­grily, “And you’re gray too!

If there is no black and white, there is yet lighter and darker, and not all grays are the same.

The com­menter G2 points us to Asi­mov’s “The Rel­a­tivity of Wrong”:

When peo­ple thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When peo­ple thought the earth was spher­i­cal, they were wrong. But if you think that think­ing the earth is spher­i­cal is just as wrong as think­ing the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put to­gether.