The Tech Elite’s Favorite Pop Intellectual

Julia Galef on bringing the rationalist movement to the mainstream.

Photo: Matt Eich for New York Magazine
Photo: Matt Eich for New York Magazine

In 2012, Julia Galef, the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking, moved from New York to Berkeley to help found a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Rationality. It was the early days of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strove to strip their minds of cognitive biases and subject all spheres of life to the glare of scientific thought and probabilistic reasoning. Galef and her CFAR co-founders — mathematician Anna Salamon, research scientist Andrew Critch, and math and science educator Michael Smith — wanted to translate these principles to everyday life. They did this through multiday workshops, where participants could learn to make better decisions using techniques like “goal factoring” (breaking a goal into smaller pieces) and “paired debugging” (in which two people help identify each other’s blind spots and distortions).

Over the next several years, as rationalism became not only the de facto brand of self-help in Silicon Valley but also an intellectual movement followed by pundits and executives alike, CFAR’s profile grew; soon, the nonprofit was running workshops across the country and teaching classes at Facebook and the Thiel Fellowship. But for CFAR’s founders, it was the empirical confirmation of their work that mattered most. Early on, they began conducting a controlled study to determine whether the workshops were demonstrably helpful. They surveyed 40 participants, assessing their before-and-after answers to questions like “How together is your life?” and “How successful do you feel in your social life?” The study found that, one year after the workshop ended, participants showed decreased neuroticism and increased self-efficacy, but to Galef, the results weren’t sufficiently rigorous. “What was it about the workshop?” she says. “Was it the classes or hanging out with like-minded people that makes the difference?” Conducting more tests would have been too expensive. “My vision was we’d come up with hypotheses about techniques, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t. It turned out to be much harder than I’d realized.”

In 2016, Galef left CFAR, unsatisfied with what she had been able to accomplish there. Instead, she began working on her first book, which, after five years, will be published by Penguin on April 13. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t is a fitting debut for someone who has considered herself a “populizer” of the rationalist movement. “I take these ideas I think are great and try to explain them to a wider audience,” she says.

When we speak over Zoom, Galef is in Franklin, North Carolina, her face evenly lit by the ring lamp she travels with. Since she and her fiancé left their San Francisco studio this past July, they’ve been doing the digital-nomad thing. Right now, they are near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a golf-course Airbnb. Galef holds her laptop camera up to the window, revealing a burbling creek outside. “It suits our personalities and lifestyle,” she says. “We both work remotely” — he’s a program officer focused on artificial intelligence at the effective-altruism organization Open Philanthropy — “we’re both introverts, we’re both minimalists, and we both like novelty.”

To the extent that the rationalist movement has been written about, its eccentricities have tended to get outsize attention: Some rationalists live in group houses with names like Event Horizon and Godric’s Hollow; polyamory and a preoccupation with the existential risk posed by AI are both overrepresented. In opposition to mainstream online culture, which believes that certain arguments should be off-limits, the rationalsphere wants to be able to talk about anything. Slate Star Codex — recently renamed Astral Codex Ten — the most prominent rationalist blog, has caused controversy by countenancing free-flowing discussion of topics such as race science and female harassment of men. And because of their devotion to hyperanalysis, some members of the community can present as arrogant and lacking in EQ.

Galef, however, is an amiable ambassador for the movement, adept at distilling its concepts in an accessible and plainspoken manner. The speech of rationalists is heavy on the vernacular, often derived from programming language: “updating your priors” (keeping an open mind), “steel-manning” (arguing with the strongest version of whatever point your opponent is making), “double-cruxing” (trying to get to the root of a disagreement). But Galef’s speech is mostly jargon-free. She, too, has lived in a group house, but it didn’t have a geeky name and mainly had to do with the cost of living in San Francisco. “I often publicly identify as an ‘effective altruist,’ ” she says, referring to the rationalist spinoff movement focused on optimizing philanthropy, “because it’s easier to explain, and it doesn’t rub people the wrong way the way ‘rationalist’ does. It’s simpler and friendlier.”

Intellectual honesty, an admirable quality to which some people aspire sometimes, has been nothing less than the organizing principle of Galef’s life. She dropped out of a Ph.D. program in economics at Yale because of concerns about the strength of the evidence for the discipline’s claims. She then detoured into urban design before becoming dissatisfied with that field’s subjectivity, too. Inspired by an essay by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham on the value of “holding your identity lightly” — so that defending it doesn’t get in the way of seeing the world clearly — she has stopped referring to herself as a Democrat. Ten years ago, an atheist blogger Galef followed published a list of 14 “Sexy Scientists,” which in more than 1,500 comments on a dozen blogs was alternately blasted (“fucking skeevdood”) and defended (“just silly fun”). The next week, the blogger, Luke Muehlhauser, posted an apology, declaring that publishing the list had been morally wrong. Galef was so impressed by his willingness to reconsider his position that she emailed him a fan note. The two are now engaged.

In her book, Galef argues for what she calls “scout mindset,” which she contrasts with “soldier mindset.” The idea is that evolution has wired our minds to be soldiers (focused on winning) instead of scouts (focused on ensuring our mental maps accurately reflect the territory of reality). To adopt a scout mindset is to resist falling prey to “motivated reasoning,” in which we distort our thoughts to achieve a desired outcome.

One reason The Scout Mindset took five years to publish is that Galef wanted it to be evidence-based, and after scrutinizing the methodology of the studies she was citing, she lost confidence in much of it and ended up rewriting large sections.

“Maybe this is too meta, but the thesis of my book has changed a lot over time,” Galef says. “I’d find myself in an interview and the person would say something that disagreed with my thesis, I’d start to argue, and I’d finish the interview and realize I failed to learn anything because I was trying to convince them I was right.” The stress or shame that accompanies being wrong can cause people to double down on their arguments, but in those situations, Galef reminds herself of a tip she gives in her book: to take pride in being the kind of person who can change their mind.

The Scout Mindset would seem to position Galef perfectly for a lucrative career as an executive coach guiding CEOs toward better decision-making, but when I ask whether that’s in her plans, she hesitates. To be a guru, she points out, would be to have “someone expecting me to have definitive advice that I can give them. I’m not quite comfortable in that role.”

The Tech Elite’s Favorite Pop Intellectual