Socratic Grilling as a Way to Learn
By David Henderson
Scott Alexander, over at slatestarcodex.com, has hit a number of home runs in the last few weeks. I want to focus on his March 6 post, “Socratic Grilling.” To follow what I’m going to say, you need to read his post first. His posts are often very long, but the March 6 one is relatively short.
I’ve been practicing my own version of what Scott calls Socratic grilling since about the age of 5. I badly wanted to understand things around me. Even though I learned to read at age 5, I wasn’t much of a reader and, although we had a public library in my town of 1,200 people, it was a small library. For my first few years of reading, I focused on Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books.
My way of learning was not to read but to ask adults around me to explain things. When I got only a few thoughts that seemed to fit, I would then adopt a position and argue it, being open to being shown that that was wrong. You could say I was a Bayesian. I found it much easier to take definite positions than to be agnostic because if I was agnostic, I was less motivated to find the truth. I’m still that way.
I was also very literal and still am. So, for example, when I was about 12, the janitor of my church, an older man, took a liking to me and I liked him, and he invited me to his and his wife’s place on a Sunday afternoon. We got talking about politics, of which I knew next to nothing, and he made the claim that the newly formed New Democratic Party was communist. I said that was false. He insisted it was true. I made my mother the arbiter. I called her up and asked her if it was true. She said it was false and I handed the phone to my friend so she could tell him. I now realize that probably he was saying they were communist inclined and there was some truth to that for the more extreme members. But then he should have said that.
About 3 weeks ago, I started thinking, based on my reading, that we would have somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19. So I stated the minimum 200,000 number on discussions of various people’s Facebook posts, hoping to have people argue back and say I was either overstating or understating. One person who disagreed with me and thought I was too pessimistic was my friend and co-author Charley Hooper. So I called him a few weeks ago to find out why. He walked me through his reasoning, based on the Diamond Princess cruise ship data, and I kind of filled in some of my own numbers, to come up with my position.
In the midst of it, I made a bet. Whereas my co-blogger Bryan Caplan bets to make people stand by their claims and his George Mason University colleague Alex Tabarrok says, “A bet is a tax on bulls**t,” my motivation is somewhat different. There’s an overlap: I want to make other people stand by their claims. But I also want to make myself stand by my claims. In other words, I want to tax my own thing that rhymes with pullkit. I want to motivate myself to get the right answer. And both prepping for the bet and making the bet motivate me. Before the bet, I think carefully with money at stake. After the bet, I’m more motivated to keep thinking.
I think sometimes friends on Facebook who think they know me are surprised. I’ll make a casual assertion, when there’s no money at stake, and then wait and see what other FB friends, many of whom are very smart and very thoughtful, will say. I’ve been doing that particularly with the COVID-19 issue. After seeing what they say, I sometimes thank them for the thoughtful discussion because I learned from it. In one case recently that was not about COVID-19 per se but, instead, was about Donald Trump’s handling of it, the comments caused me to completely switch my position. I explained to one of the other commenters that that did not motivate me to delete the post because there was a lot of good learning that went on, for me certainly and probably for other readers.
One friend recently said on his own post on FB, in no uncertain terms, that people who are not epidemiologists should, essentially, quit opining about the epidemiology of the COVID-19 issue. What rubbed me the wrong way was not mainly the anger with which he expressed it. More fundamentally, it went against my Socratic way of learning.