What I Learned from Fantasy Intellectual Teams
Finding my tribe
Economist Arnold Kling recently hosted a fantasy sports inspired competition designed to identify thinkers who are humble, substantive, and charitable to those who disagree. He calls this experiment “Fantasy Intellectual Teams” and I had the pleasure of participating by drafting a team of five intellectuals and tracking their performance over the month of May.
In this game, intellectuals are referred to as “players” and points are rewarded for such categories as:
Playing Devil’s Advocate by asking questions that force an interview guest to clarify or defend a position
Thinking in Bets by giving concrete odds that an event will happen
Admitting to Caveats in one’s preferred point of view by acknowledging its weak points
Steel-manning an opposing point of view by deliberately arguing the best case for it before expressing why it is incorrect
More scoring categories described here.
It was a good time. Apart from giving me the chance to meet one of my favorite bloggers and score points for being an infovore, I believe that FITs genuinely improved my approach to consuming and evaluating information. What exactly did I learn?
Avoid “Devalue and Dismiss”
Smart people tend to be very good at what Tyler Cowen calls “Devalue and Dismiss”—they can quickly come up with many smart (or smart-sounding) reasons to entirely disregard arguments that don’t support their worldview.
Competing in FITs opened my eyes to how easy it is to listen to thinkers that appeal to my own biases rather than the highest intellectual standards. Where before I experienced an aggressive takedown of an opposing point of view as exciting, I now often come away disappointed. I have found a new way of keeping score.
Sometimes the person I am most disappointed in is myself. Now when friends ask my opinion on controversial subjects, I am acutely aware of deficiencies in my mode of argument and have a clear path to improving quickly. If I find myself struggling to give a strong argument for why someone reasonable might disagree with me, for example, I know I need to study the issue more before I can truly understand it.
Choose your Tribe
The human species owes much of its success to its exceptional capacity to cooperate flexibly in groups. While anciently we exercised this capacity largely in the context of familial clans, cultural and technological progress have made it possible to coordinate with larger and more distantly related groups. At an individual level, affordable travel and the internet make it easier than ever before to choose our tribes based on our own unique criteria.
As a FITs participant, I became part of a tribe committed to discovering the best intellectual contributions and improving public discourse, which in turn shaped the way I consume and communicate ideas both inside and outside of the game. Even on anonymous comment threads, I am now more likely to avoid the impulse to overstate my case or behave uncharitably.
This experience helped convince me that the tribe we identify with can exert a powerful influence on our ability to practice clear and unbiased thinking. Beyond the immediate FITs community (which met only online), I came to think of my tribe as expansive enough to admit anyone who embraces the intellectual habits that define the FITs scoring system. This in turn made it easier for me to learn from many intelligent and fair-minded people who were previously foreign to me, regardless of whatever disagreements we might have on a particular topic.
Remember Life is Short
Even with only five players to follow on my team, I did not manage to read and listen to everything that they produced. This gave me the opportunity to focus my attention on learning their core ideas more deeply and reflect on the elements of their intellectual style I want to emulate. My tastes changed to favor careful and nuanced over brash and overconfident, and I now avoid most intellectual commentary that is not “point worthy” in some dimension. While I naturally come across valuable and wise content that does not technically score points within the FITs framework, I find that the originator is often someone that tends to score well.
The metapoint is that time invested in determining clear criteria or rules for what to spend time on was very helpful for deepening my learning. Rather than passively consuming content that comes to you in a social media feed, spend some time thinking about how to think and learning how to learn. Find someone you admire in the blogosphere and try to figure out how they learn. Better yet, think of someone you know and admire in real life and set up a time to ask them some well considered questions. Time is too scarce to waste it reading or listening to thinkers with poor intellectual habits.