The Other Groupthink

[Experimenting with bashing out a few hundred words on something I'm thinking about. I start writing too many things before abandoning them for not being immaculate. Perfection is the enemy of the tolerably mediocre.]

I have spent a considerable amount of time, effort and resources learning about subjects such as social choice theory, international development and government regulatory mechanisms. These are diverse areas of inquiry which, for historical and administrative reasons, are placed under a common category called "economics", but which otherwise don't resemble one another very much. So when someone comes along and makes broad sweeping statements about "economics" or "economists", as if these words point to coherent homogeneous groups of people and activity, I want to scream in their face until the seas boil and the skies fall down.

There may very well be all sorts of legitimate criticism to be levied at some subset of economists, but if you try and reason non-trivially at the group level about all economists, the chances of you not being somehow wrong are as good as zero. I've made this case in a couple of places on the subject of economics, (c.f. "screaming", "seas boiling", etc.), but the general pattern keeps on coming back to haunt me for groups in general:

Although [group] sounds like it's referring to a coherent class of people or activity, [group] doesn't actually capture a homogeneous category in general, and doesn't define the features you're arguing about in particular. As a consequence, thinking and talking about [group] as if this wasn't the case is going to have undesirable results.

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In a few places recently, I've heard complains about superfluous use of the word "white". This is probably best exemplified by the term "white nerdy males". The word "white" in this construct isn't really doing any work in whittling down the referent. Someone making a statement about "white nerdy males" isn't trying to exclude ethnic-minority nerdy males from their statement, but trying to stick as many "privileged-group" labels onto the referent group as they can before making claims about it. There may very well be a group of people to whom their statement or reasoning applies, but all literal members of the group defined by "white nerdy males" probably isn't it.

Scott Alexander made a very interesting post on the subject of unhelpful political coalitions accidentally falling out of perceived threats to a wider group identity. Then he shot himself in the foot a bit by reasoning about feminism as a coherent homogeneous category of activity. More recently, I think he's been getting better at this.

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For the past couple of weeks I've been trying to notice whenever I, or anyone else, makes claims about a defined group that probably isn't the intended group to whom the claim applies. This has been quite humbling. I've received specific training in figuring out to what extent individual behaviour generalises and generalised behaviour is applicable to individuals, and yet I clearly don't apply this as a matter of course.

A lot of very silly disputes go away when you realise the object of dispute doesn't really exist in any meaningful sense, and if I can get into the habit of questioning whether any given group I find myself reasoning about is fit for purpose, I hope to make a lot of problems go away, or at least flatten out into more manageable ones.

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