Human Evil and Muddled Thinking
George Orwell saw the descent of the civilized world into totalitarianism, the conversion or corruption of one country after another; the boot stamping on a human face, forever, and remember that it is forever. You were born too late to remember a time when the rise of totalitarianism seemed unstoppable, when one country after another fell to secret police and the thunderous knock at midnight, while the professors of free universities hailed the Soviet Union’s purges as progress. It feels as alien to you as fiction; it is hard for you to take seriously. Because, in your branch of time, the Berlin Wall fell. And if Orwell’s name is not carved into one of those stones, it should be.
Orwell saw the destiny of the human species, and he put forth a convulsive effort to wrench it off its path. Orwell’s weapon was clear writing. Orwell knew that muddled language is muddled thinking; he knew that human evil and muddled thinking intertwine like conjugate strands of DNA:1
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification…
Orwell was clear on the goal of his clarity:
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
To make our stupidity obvious, even to ourselves—this is the heart of Overcoming Bias.
Evil sneaks, hidden, through the unlit shadows of the mind. We look back with the clarity of history, and weep to remember the planned famines of Stalin and Mao, which killed tens of millions. We call this evil, because it was done by deliberate human intent to inflict pain and death upon innocent human beings. We call this evil, because of the revulsion that we feel against it, looking back with the clarity of history. For perpetrators of evil to avoid its natural opposition, the revulsion must remain latent. Clarity must be avoided at any cost. Even as humans of clear sight tend to oppose the evil that they see; so too does human evil, wherever it exists, set out to muddle thinking.
1984 sets this forth starkly: Orwell’s ultimate villains are cutters and airbrushers of photographs (based on historical cutting and airbrushing in the Soviet Union). At the peak of all darkness in the Ministry of Love, O’Brien tortures Winston to admit that two plus two equals five:2
“Do you remember,” he went on, “writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four’?”
“Yes,” said Winston.
O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”
“And if the party says that it is not four but five—then how many?”
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
I am continually aghast at apparently intelligent folks—such as Robin Hanson’s colleague Tyler Cowen—who don’t think that overcoming bias is important. This is your mind we’re talking about. Your human intelligence. It separates you from an ape. It built this world. You don’t think how the mind works is important? You don’t think the mind’s systematic malfunctions are important? Do you think the Inquisition would have tortured witches, if all were ideal Bayesians?
Tyler Cowen apparently feels that overcoming bias is just as biased as bias: “I view Robin’s blog as exemplifying bias, and indeed showing that bias can be very useful.” I hope this is only the result of thinking too abstractly while trying to sound clever. Does Tyler seriously think that scope insensitivity to the value of human life is on the same level with trying to create plans that will really save as many lives as possible?
Orwell was forced to fight a similar attitude—that to admit to any distinction is youthful naiveté:
Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?
Maybe overcoming bias doesn’t look quite exciting enough, if it’s framed as a struggle against mere accidental mistakes. Maybe it’s harder to get excited if there isn’t some clear evil to oppose. So let us be absolutely clear that where there is human evil in the world, where there is cruelty and torture and deliberate murder, there are biases enshrouding it. Where people of clear sight oppose these biases, the concealed evil fights back. The truth does have enemies. If Overcoming Bias were a newsletter in the old Soviet Union, every poster and commenter of Overcoming Bias would have been shipped off to labor camps.
In all human history, every great leap forward has been driven by a new clarity of thought. Except for a few natural catastrophes, every great woe has been driven by a stupidity. Our last enemy is ourselves; and this is a war, and we are soldiers.
Orwell, “Politics and the English Language.”
George Orwell, 1984 (Signet Classic, 1950).