You may have heard of the dichotomy drawn between ‘high decouplers’ and ‘low decouplers’. High decouplers are people who are able to isolate an idea from its context: as Tom Chivers writes, they can perform a ritual of ‘If we accept X, then we might think Y’, and then explore the implications of X being true without knowing whether it is true. For instance, a high-decoupler might be happy with a thought experiment that starts ‘If we accept that IQ is heritable, then…’, whereas a low-decoupler wouldn’t be happy just
This comedy clip plays with the concept with a concrete example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owI7DOeO_yg
This was a wonderfully-written article, thank you Sam. My partner and I had a long and fruitful discussion about our communication styles and preferences, and they mentioned a few new thoughts that I'm sharing now:
There's another reason to refuse the d-decouple, which is to avoid reinforcing dominant narratives in ones own self. We all have implicit bias, and it takes a lot of work to push against the dominant narratives that our implicit bias is reinforcing. So let's say society is constantly sending me the message that a certain group is worse in some way, but the truth is that they probably aren't. By accepting a d-decouple on that topic, it might be harmful to me by reinforcing the default beliefs I'm already having trouble pushing against.
One last thought. My partner suggested that we decouple when we engage with immersive fiction. From my own personal experience, I find that I'm happier and engage with the world in better ways when I'm reading books or playing games that depict a better world. This might not generalize to others, but I can't help but compare it against the above concept of decoupling.
Thanks again for a really lovely post. I'm now a happy subscriber.
The problem is that if you refuse to concede empirical facts, then you are unpersuasive to the people who believe the empirical facts and the bad normative thing. Imagine that "eugenics works" was actually a fact that very intelligent people would come to if they examined the issue closely. If they go to the non-eugenics people and say "Hey, I think this works but I'm just interested in the implications" and they go "Nope! You're a bad person. We aren't having this discussion" and they go to the pro-eugenics people and they say "Yes, you're not a bad person. You're actually very intelligent and brave for figuring this out. By the way, here are our arguments for coercive eugenics" Then you create a group of intelligent people who you can only suppress and not persuade of bad ethical opinions.
The frustrating thing is if you want to talk about non-coercive eugenics through something like embryo selection, people start relating it back to forced sterilizations as if it were relevant. You can call embryo selection for health and intelligence "eugenics" but it lacks all the bad qualities that people associate with it! Nobody is getting hurt and people are becoming healthier. It's like a vaccine.
I guess there are people significantly higher in propensity-to-D-decouple than you. I would (absent concern that the taxi driver was trying to generate blackmail material on me or similar) be inclined to accept the hypothetical for the discussion, rather than just rejecting it, and similarly with the Dawkins case. Though I do, I suspect, take more enjoyment in discussing strange hypothetical situations than most people.
There is, however, the consideration of public perception when the conversation is more for the benefit of onlookers than for the participants themselves. However, I think the best way to do that is not to just deny the premise of the hypothetical, which tends to make the person doing the denying look obtuse and uninterested in engaging with their interlocutor (at least to me), but rather to focus on the aspect that actually does lead to the bad results (such as the coercive part of coercive eugenics, rather than the eugenics part).
This also relates to the idea of whether there are should-be-taboo truths — things that are true, but the knowing of which by the general public would almost invariably lead to a bad outcome.
Fascinating article. For me personally, I feel like D-Decoupling is rarely primarily an intellectual exercise—it's an emotional one. When I talk to my grandfather, whose policy ideas come from a very different cultural/political place (or maybe they just feel like a different tribe), what I need to do to engage fully is meditate, because the hard thing is not at all the intellectual understanding of his points, but the setting aside of emotions that they trigger in me.
Similarly to your argument, Sam, that D-Decoupling is a moral choice, I think it's both a) an important skill to be able to set aside/let go of the emotion to be able to think about troubling/weird hypotheticals, or even just arguments coming from a different tribe, but also b) there is definitely a tendency among the men in my family to D-Decouple quickly and therefore miss key emotional aspects of communication and relationships.
Another point, in a mini case study: I've been reading a lot of Bryan Caplan's work lately, which involves a lot of setting aside my preconceptions. When I read arguments he cites against fighting climate change, I start caring less about it, even when I am not intellectually convinced. So I am wary about exposure as a factor that can update our beliefs unconsciously even when we don't want to do that.
I suspect your examples of public discourse hit the nail on the head.
Public discourse with third party onlookers is very different from private discourse. Especially if sound bite hungry media are listening in.