Book Review: The Scout Mindset
Julia Galef offers a path out of my gloomy cynicism, and a way for us all to think more clearly — for those of us who want it
The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t, by Julia Galef, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 288 pages, 2021.
Despite the title, this probably doesn’t qualify as a “review”, because there’s no way I could write anything about this book dispassionately. When I first heard of this book’s author, I was feeling pretty down about the concept of discourse, or even the concept of reasoning. A tentative reemergence from a 2018 resolution to quit political discussions turned out to be terrible idea, and frustrated by the righteous polarisation of even the people nearest to me, I was on the verge of retreating again. All that I knew of Julia Galef — thanks to the YouTube algorithm — was a few videos and a TED talk about her idea, “scout mindset”, the drive “not to make one idea win or another lose, but to see what’s really there, as accurately as you can”. It all seemed more level-headed than most things I’d seen. Could her book be the antidote I needed?
This hope made this an especially dangerous book for me. When I just described her videos as “level-headed” — well, a description more consistent with the intellectual honesty that I aspire to would be, “she said things I wanted to hear”. It would be too easy for me to pick up this book, nod along with the things that resonate with me, overlook the things that don’t, and call it a great read. So I made a conscious effort to take note of claims that surprised or were new to me.
I mention all this both as a general disclaimer, but also to emphasise that what I got out of the book isn’t necessarily the same as what you’d get out of it. Some of the techniques that Galef advocates were already familiar to me: Bayesian thinking and updating, the double standard and outsider tests, and the ideological Turing test (though I didn’t know it had a name). Some were more thought-through takes on things I’ve thought vaguely about before: the role of confidence, uncertainty, and leaning into confusion. And of course, I needed no convincing that “scout mindset” is generally undervalued.
But the ideas I’ll focus on are those that made me rethink how I think about knowledge, beliefs and the pursuit of truth.
Galef’s thesis is that the main determinant in whether someone exercises sound and accurate judgement is not intelligence or knowledge, but whether they want to see things as they really are. Lacking an existing term for this, Galef calls it “scout mindset”, in contrast to “soldier mindset”, the drive to defend and fortify one’s beliefs against attack.
If this seems obvious and underwhelming to you, I can see why. After all, I suspect everyone would describe their beliefs as “seeing things as they really are”. But bear with me. Scout mindset, Galef argues, doesn’t come naturally — and it’s easy to feel objective when we’re anything but. So rather than sermonise, Galef takes us on a tour of strategies for actually practising scout mindset. She recounts stories of people who have benefited from scout mindset to serve as role models. And, most crucially, she addresses the emotional barriers to engaging in scout mindset — and how to overcome them.
This last part — the need to counter emotional instincts pulling us in the soldier’s direction — is what I’d consider to be Galef’s key contribution in this book. The Scout Mindset would hardly be the first text imploring us to be more intellectually honest. But it’s easier said than done, and as she discusses each technique, Galef breaks down the forces stopping us from doing so. How do you accept uncertainty without losing persuasiveness? How do you dispense with unrealistic optimism without sacrificing motivation? How do you change your mind without feeling like it’s a defeat? Galef recognises what few of the rest of us do, and what I certainly didn’t: that to pursue scout mindset, we need to diagnose and reflect on these barriers.
Those ideas will be useful for many, I’m sure. But the ideas that transformed my conception of how to think came later in the book.
I fret a lot about echo chambers. I try not to be caught in one, I wish others would too, and I have four abandoned draft posts from the last five years about this. So I felt a little targeted when Galef wrote, “I suspect even the well-intentioned people [telling others to escape their echo chamber] already know, on some level, that it doesn’t work.” But it’s not that the concept is flawed. It made sense once she said it: We tend to choose the worst people on the other side to listen to. No wonder they fail to move us! Better to listen to people we have some existing rapport with — people we trust, who we aren’t approaching with a pre-ordained mutual dislike.
This leads into another theme in The Scout Mindset: identity. But for my read of it to make sense, I’ll need to let you in on a little bit about mine.
I’ve spent basically my entire life declining to associate with political ideologies, even ones I’m sympathetic to. There’s probably a reason for this: I worry that doing so will compromise my ability to think for myself. Indeed, Galef spends a couple of chapters discussing the dangers of mixing beliefs with identities, and strategies for holding identities without having them usurp our capacity to think.
The irony for me is that, in my eagerness to avoid political identity, I’ve also avoided being sucked into the rationality movement, despite being aware of it for a number of years. In some sense, my political independence was an identity in its own right, albeit a lonely one — something Galef hinted at early in the book, in her discussion of how we choose beliefs to maintain an image to others. But identities don’t exist in a vacuum. In the book, Galef explains how the company and the role models we choose can shape the emotional incentives on how we think.
When I wrote about retreating into my own echo chamber a few months ago, I don’t think I truly believed it. It was more of a “giving up” piece, and I was upset that I couldn’t see another option. But I still wrote it, so I should be wary — as Galef warns repeatedly — of simply looking for reinforcement. One “update” (as she would call it) for me is that, contrary to my earlier belief, there are plenty of scouts to follow. Galef littered the book with examples of scouts because they exist. If I want to get good at seeing things accurately, they’re the ones I want to aspire to — the ones I want to identify with.
What of everyone else? The other update is this: Adopting a scout mindset is hard work. No one’s perfect at it, and I’m kidding myself if I think I’m uniquely good at it. Knowing this, rather than despair about poor or motivated reasoning by others, I hope I’ll become more forgiving when others succumb to it. And rather than retreat for comfort, I hope my motivation for seeking out like-minded people will be to renew my work on improving how I think.
I can’t hand-on-heart tell you whether this book is for you. Deep down, of course, I want everyone to read it, and I hope you’ll get something out of it. If you value truth-seeking, I think this book will offer a lot to reflect on. If you want to get better at seeing things for what they are, I think you’ll really appreciate the tools this book offers to help.
What I’m not sure that this book could do — what I’m not sure that any book could do — is give you the motivation to develop the humility that scout mindset requires. Scout mindset is about avoiding fooling yourself, and that exercise can’t start if you don’t think you can and do fool yourself. I think Galef does as good a job explaining why we’re bad at it and why this matters as any job I can imagine — but I would say that, because I subscribed to the premise before picking up the book. And I can’t help but wonder if it’d be too easy to read through Galef’s descriptions of soldiers and think, chapter after chapter: “That doesn’t sound like me.”
Thankfully, there’s a good way to preview the ideas in this book, just as I did before I bought my copy. That TED talk I mentioned earlier introduces the premise, and Galef has a YouTube channel of amateur but lucid videos exploring some ideas in the book. If seeing things clearly and accurately sounds like your thing, go and have a look at them. If they give you something to think about, my guess is that this book will too.