Too obvious to say

I’m in favor of living for an indefinitely long time. Pointing this out seems similar to pointing out that I’m in favor of not putting my hands in blenders while they are running. Same goes for ‘there probably isn’t a God’, ‘freezing one’s head is a good idea (under certain circumstances)’, and a lot of the other apparently controversial topics. I rarely state these opinions unless asked because it’s embarrassing to point out obvious things. If there seemed to be a sincere discussion of whether forty nine is the square of seven, I’d be embarrassed to join it, despite my strong views on the topic.

From the perspective of someone who’s not sure whether life extension is a good idea, I look like I don’t have a strong opinion. They see a small number of people who visibly like it, and a small number who visibly don’t. Yet if most people behave like me in the above respect, almost everyone they don’t hear from could be one one side or the other, and it would look the same.

Do many people act similarly to me in this regard? I’m not sure. Why would saying obvious things be embarrassing? It suggests that you don’t think they are obvious. So if you belong to a social group where it is embarrassing to believe X, all things equal I’d expect it to be embarrassing to point out ‘not X’. But some social groups are defined by debating issues that they claim to be very confident about one way or the other. So something else is going on too. For instance members of a pro-life group don’t seem to signal any uncertainty about the issue to other members by engaging pro-choice people.

This could be a matter of how the other side is behaving. If I went out and found the people arguing about 49, and joined in, that would look worse than me pitching in if I were just sitting at home and my housemates got into an argument about it. In the first case it would be embarrassing in front of my current friends, but if I got so involved as to make new friends with the pro side in the 49 debate, I guess it would be less embarrassing in front of them. So maybe people who have strong views, but are around people with other views still find it ok to say the others are wrong, while those who only spend time with likeminded folks more likely feel silly claiming that the other side is wrong. Notice that claiming the other side is wrong is different to assuming the other side is wrong, and mocking them about it. Everyone can do that. If this model is right, and people mostly spend time with people who are near them on the spectrum of various opinions, we would still get an effect like the one illustrated above. I don’t know if this is true. What do you think?

6 responses to “Too obvious to say

  1. On a tangent to your point, there is maybe a subtle difference between not-stating-the-obvious because it has anti-group affiliation affects versus because it might reveal lack of intelligence. I suspect teachers at high school level and beyond would generally accept the idea that getting an individual in a classroom of students to volunteer to answer an “easy” question can be just as difficult as finding one to answer a “hard” question. As you say, it may be that the student considers that answering an easy question suggests they may have thought it was not easy and were attempting to gain credit by responding, inviting the scorn of others. An alternate story could be that by answering an easy question, a student reveals that they have the the characteristic of being willing-to-answer-questions (rather than being aloof, which is a stereotypical marker of ‘coolness’), and that a failure on their part to answer subsequent harder questions will reveal that they are genuinely ignorant of the answers; having one’s intelligence publicly gauged may be less preferable to having others confuse your ignorance with indifference.

  2. Anecdotally, I have noticed that when I when I ask children (<12 years) "Would you like to live to be 500?", the children will answer yes. Some of them will even smile when I ask. When I ask adults, they usually pause and put in the socially acceptable amount of thought before responding to a "profound question."

  3. Naturally, I agree with the entire content of this article.

    I remember once being surprised that… certain claims… were controversial, because I thought they were just so obvious. That may have been a hidden motivation when I wrote this http://lesswrong.com/lw/9q5/on_saying_the_obvious/

  4. It seems to me there’s a difference between “things everyone thinks are obvious” (e.g. don’t stick your hand in blenders) and “things I think should be obvious, but which most people appear to not believe” (e.g. eternal life would be nice). There’s no point in talking about the first, because you have nothing new to add. There is a point in talking about the second, because you do have something new, or at least different, to add.

    I hadn’t seriously thought about how long I wanted to live until this year. For most of my life, everyone I knew assumed we would all die within the century and that was how it should be, so that’s what I assumed was obvious. When I started hearing people talk about indefinite life being a good thing, the first viewpoint stopped seeming obvious and I actually *thought* about it for the first time.

    If the topic actually matters, I think embarrassment should take a backseat to truth-seeking.

  5. Pingback: Obvious points | Meteuphoric

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