Julia Galef's The Scout Mindset is not for me, in ways both big and small. To start with, it should be called just Scout Mindset, not The Scout Mindset. No, I will not be justifying that statement with an argument. Beyond that injustice, it's an engaging precis on some important topics by a thoughtful author, and a book that was clearly a labor of love. And at times I couldn't stand reading it.
Galef’s book, her first, is part of a burgeoning genre in how to think more rationally. The text, squarely designed for a popular audience, is a primer on how to make better choices and think more clearly despite the fact that we as a species have a remarkable number of ways to fail at both. As a string of bestsellers on neuroscience and psychology have argued in the past 20 years or so, we are a self-deluding species, and the ways that we lie to ourselves cause us unnecessary hardship. The trick is whether learning about these cognitive biases can really help free us from them. Galef is convinced that we can think better, if we want to, and presents a set of thought experiments and tools to help the reader in this regard. Embracing such tools helps one to think like a scout - not all the time, but perhaps when it counts.
The titular “Scout Mindset” exists in contrast to “Soldier Mindset.” Someone who thinks like a scout is an explorer, willing to truly scout out the terrain and see the world for what it is. (Mostly, it turns out, through applying concepts from elementary probability.) The soldier, in contrast, is stuck in defensive thinking, determined never to cede territory, intent on defending what they believe to be true in the face of threats, even when it would be more to their advantage to let old beliefs go. If those sound like somewhat awkward analogs, I’m with you, but they’re also a useful enough acrostic for different ways of thinking. Those fundamental terms do disappear from the text for a strangely long period, though, given the title. There are times that I felt that the central metaphor was perhaps pushed onto Galef by her publishing company; they love digestible metaphors, and creating a good guy/bad guy dichotomy never hurts sales, and as I said Galef develops her metaphor and swiftly sets it aside. But that’s speculation, and not very responsible speculation.