Update Your Priors
I’m pretty sure what I’m about to lay out is a Bayesian framework, but I don’t want to explain Bayesian statistics because (a) I would probably do it incorrectly; and (b) I don’t really care whether what I’m about to say matches up with it entirely. I only mention it because I don’t want to make it seem like I’m re-inventing the wheel with what I’m about to say, only that I’m using an existing wheel while I see others dragging their epistemic baggage on the ground with a sled.
All of us bring to the table prior beliefs (priors) about the world, and we should alter those priors afterwards based on the new information gleaned from what we subsequently observe in it.
For example, let’s say you believe Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world right now. That would be your prior. If he wins the 2024 Australian Open, it’ll probably solidify your belief ever-so-slightly, confirming your priors. If he loses in the final in a five-set nail-biter to Carlos Alcaraz, it might undermine that belief slightly. You are not 100 percent sure in your belief about Djokovic, you just think he’s probably still the best at this particular time, and observing what happens going forward can change that.
Now, if Djokovic were to lose in the first-round to the 500th ranked qualifier in a close match, that would more strongly undermine your prior. Maybe he’s over the hill now, or his heart’s no longer in it after he achieved what he set out to do. Your prior would come under even more pressure if he didn’t just lose to an upstart playing out of his mind, but he got destroyed in three sets, and the guy who beat him himself got destroyed in the very next round.
This is more or less how I try to formulate beliefs about what I observe. Accordingly, when both parties of the US government united in the conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, used that conclusion to justify the destruction of a country, the deaths of a million-odd innocent people and a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to arms manufacturers in the billions of dollars, my prior, something along the lines of “sure, the US government is corrupt, but not insanely rapaciously evil” got a significant update.
When the architects of that war never got prosecuted for it, despite documentary evidence of torture and no evidence of WMDs, and the media cheerleaders for it not only didn’t get fired, but promoted, my priors that we have a functional justice system for the powerful or a corporate news media with even the most rudimentary sense of ethics were also updated. This seems like fairly basic epistemic due diligence, and I had once assumed most rational people were doing more or less the same thing.
. . .
One interesting aspect of this framework is the stronger your prior, the more severely it would be altered in the face of phenomena that contradict it. In our tennis example, if I am firmly convinced Djokovic is the best player in the world, seeing him destroyed by a nobody will strike a strong blow to the certainty I have about that belief. Whereas had I identified an 18-year-old up-and-comer I thought was a good prospect and might one day be the best player in the world, seeing him get destroyed in his first grand slam by a nobody wouldn’t move the needle nearly as much. I might think less of his prospects, but it would be slightly less. It wouldn’t turn my beliefs upside down to the same extent. The stronger the prior, the more jarring it is when falsified.
That’s why the Iraq War was so jarring to me. My prior was that powerful government officials are often craven and corrupt, but I had no idea they would launch a war of aggression on a false pretense and wantonly kill so many people.
But once I recalibrated my beliefs about of what the government was capable, each subsequent act of wantonness was less and less epistemically jarring (though still jarring nonetheless, as like everyone else, I have an emotional incentive to believe the people in power are not totally psychopathic, even in a “banality of evil” kind of way.)
Nonetheless, the covid response was also quite jarring to me, as I didn’t think the government would lie to us that blatantly and nakedly, knowing they’d be found out, and I also didn’t think so many of my fellow citizens would pretend the emperor were clothed for so long, defend the indefensible and even now be unwilling to face what actually happened.
Because if you were a person who believed our public health officials and politicians, inept at times though they might be, were basically looking out for the good of the citizenry, and you discovered they brazenly lied about covid origins, actively censored true information, crushed dissent, suppressed early treatments and lied about the efficacy of the massively profitable mRNA shot, how could you maintain your priors about their trustworthiness? And seeing so many doctors fall into lockstep due to incentives, how could you maintain your prior trust in our medical system?
Seeing agencies like the CDC and FDA still recommending the shots, and institutions like colleges and universities still (in 2023!) requiring it for age groups not at serious risk from covid, how can one not update one’s priors about what purpose those agencies and institutions actually serve? How can elite institutions of higher learning like Harvard and Stanford actively be involved in a push for censorship?
. . .
I think we already know the answer, and it’s the same reason why even after the Iraq War, I was still jarred by the covid response. I really don’t *want* to believe the powerful institutions that play such a large role in our lives are that rotted to the root. It is extremely uncomfortable to realize so much of what we believed and on which we relied was an outright fraud. That those to whom we looked for guidance were so easily bought off or simply failed in the face of social and professional incentives to pass this basic cognitive test.
I am wide awake to the incompetence and malfeasance, and in my naive, childish, wishful-thinking-about-the-world core, am still jarred when I see the CDC pushing this experimental, unnecessary and rife-with-side-effects gene therapy on six-month old children. As Oliver Anthony wrote in his viral “Rich Men North Of Richmond” protest anthem, “I wish I could just wake up, and it not be true, but it is.”
So I understand the mechanism by which those who know they have been lied to, abused and gaslit still trust those who abused them. Stockholm Syndrome is a defense because the alternative is unthinkable.
But whatever discomfort it causes, whatever emotional pain you have to bear, whatever priors for which you have to grieve, it’s time to bear it.
We really did kill those Iraqis for no good reason. We really did trample on the civil liberties of every person in the western world for no good reason.
We really did violate the principles of the Nuremberg code, and the people who did all these things are still in power, the talking heads who cheerled them still prominent and influential in legacy media.
An adult unwilling to revise his priors in the face of what’s happened is derelict, in the same way as one who refuses to look out for his physical health or make an effort to support himself in some way. We are no longer children — we have duties and responsibilities. Updating one’s priors is not optional, even if so many of the failed experts to whom you foolishly outsourced your sense-making, refuse to do so.