Posts Tagged ‘Science’

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy is past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.

Periodically, I come across preposterously stupid arguments (in person and online) I can’t even begin to dispel. One such argument is that carbon is plant food, so we needn’t worry about greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, a byproduct of industrial activity. Although I’m unconvinced by such arrant capsule arguments, I’m also in a lousy position to contend with them because convincing evidence lies outside my scientific expertise. Moreover, evidence (should I bother to gather it) is too complex and involved to fit within a typical conversation or simple explanation. Plus, evidence relies on scientific literacy and critical reasoning often lacking in the lay public. Scientific principles work better for me rather than, for example, the finely tuned balances Nature is constantly tinkering with — something we humans can hope to discover only partially. Yet we sally forth aggressively and heedlessly to manipulate Nature at our peril, which often results in precisely the sort of unintended consequence scientists in Brazil found when mosquitoes altered genetically (to reduce their numbers as carriers of disease) developed into mosquitoes hardier and more difficult to eradicate than if we had done nothing. The notion that trees respond favorably to increased carbon in the atmosphere has been a thorn in my side for some time. Maybe it’s even partly true; I can’t say. However, the biological and geophysical principle I adhere to is that even small changes in geochemistry (minute according to some scales, e.g., parts per million or per billion) have wildly disproportionate effects. The main effect today is climate changing so fast that many organisms can’t adapt or evolve quickly enough to keep up. Instead, they’re dying en masse and going extinct.

The best analogy is the narrow range of healthy human body temperature centered on 98.6 °F. Vary not far up (fever) or down (hypothermia) and human physiology suffers and become life threatening. Indeed, even in good health, we humans expend no small effort keeping body temperature from extending far into either margin. Earth also regulates itself through a variety of blind mechanisms that are in the process of being wrecked by human activity having risen by now to the level of terraforming, much like a keystone species alters its environment. So as the planet develops the equivalent of a fever, weather systems and climate (not the same things) react, mostly in ways that make life on the surface much harder to sustain and survive. As a result, trees are in the process of dying. Gail Zawacki’s blog At Wit’s End (on my blogroll) explores this topic in excruciating and demoralizing detail. Those who are inclined to deny offhandedly are invited to explore her blog. The taiga (boreal forest) and the Amazonian rainforest are among the most significant ecological formations and carbon sinks on the planet. Yet both are threatened biomes. Deforestation and tree die-off is widespread, of course. For example, since 2010, an estimated 129 million trees in California have died from drought and bark beetle infestation. In Colorado, an estimated more than 800 millions dead trees still standing (called snags) are essentially firestarter. To my way of thinking, the slow, merciless death of trees is no small matter, and affected habitats may eventually be relegated to sacrifice zones like areas associated with mining and oil extraction.

Like the bait “carbon is plant food,” let me suggest that the trees have begun to rebel by falling over at the propitious moment to injure and/or kill hikers and campers. According to this article at Outside Magazine, the woods are not safe. So if mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or bears don’t getcha first, beware of the trees. Even broken branches and dead tree trunks that haven’t fallen fully to the ground (known as hung snags, widow-makers, and foolkillers) are known to take aim at human interlopers. This is not without precedent. In The Lord of the Rings, remember that the Ents (tree herders) went to war with Isengard, while the Huorns destroyed utterly the Orcs who had laid siege to Helm’s Deep. Tolkien’s tale is but a sliver of a much larger folklore regarding the enchanted forest, where men are lost or absorbed (as with another Tolkien character, Old Man Willow). Veneration of elemental forces of nature (symbols of both life and its inverse death) is part of our shared mythology, though muted in an era of supposed scientific sobriety. M. Night Shyamalan has weak explorations of similar themes in several of his films. Perhaps Tolkien understood at an intuitive level the silent anger and resentment of the trees, though slow to manifest, and their eventual rebellion over mistreatment by men. It’s happening again, right now, all around us. Go ahead: prove me wrong.

I’ve written a different form of this blog post at least once before, maybe more. Here’s the basic thesis: the bizarro unreality of the world in which we now live is egregious enough to make me wonder if we haven’t veered wildly off the path at some point and now exist within reality prime. I suppose one can choose any number of historical inflections to represent the branching point. For me, it was the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. (The 9/11 attacks and “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq had already occurred or commenced by then, and it had already revealed as well that lies — Saddam had WMDs — that sold the American public on the Iraq “war” were effective and remain so today.) Lots of other events changed the course of history, but none other felt as much to me like a gut punch precisely because, in the case of the 2004 presidential election, we chose our path. I fantasized waking up from my reality-prime nightmare but eventually had to grudgingly accept that if multiverses exist, ours mine had become one where we chose (collectively, and just barely) to keep in office an executive who behaved like a farce of stupidity. Well, joke’s on us. Twelve years later, we chose someone even more stupid, though with a “certain serpentine cunning,” and with arguably the worst character of any U.S. executive in living history.

So what to do in the face of this dysfunctional state of affairs? Bret Weinstein below has ideas. (As usual, I’m quite late, embedding a video that by Internet standards is already ancient. I also admit this is equivalent to a smash cut because I don’t have a particularly good transition or justification for turning so suddenly to Weinstein.) Weinstein is an evolutionary biologist, so no surprise that the approach he recommends is borne out of evolutionary thinking. In fairness, a politician would logically recommend political solutions, a financier would recommend economic solutions, and other professionals would seek solutions from within their areas of expertise.

The title of the interview is “Harnessing Evolution,” meaning Weinstein suggests we use evolutionary models to better understand our own needs and distortions to guide or plot proper path(s) forward and get back on track. Never mind that a healthy minority of the U.S. public rejects evolution outright while an additional percentage takes a hybrid stance. While I’m impressed that Weinstein has an answer for everything (pedagogue or demagogue or both?) and has clearly thought through sociopolitical issues, I daresay he’s living in reality double-prime if he thinks science education can be a panacea for what ails us. My pessimism is showing.

I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies are commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans to and reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

See this post on Seven Billion Day only a few years ago as a launching point. We’re now closing in on 7.5 billion people worldwide according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At least one other counter indicates we’ve already crossed that threshold. What used to be called the population explosion or the population bomb has lost its urgency and become generically population growth. By now, application of euphemism to mask intractable problems should be familiar to everyone. I daresay few are fooled, though plenty are calmed enough to stop paying attention. If there is anything to be done to restrain ourselves from proceeding down this easily recognized path to self-destruction, I don’t know what it is. The unwillingness to accept restraints in other aspects of human behavior demonstrate pretty well that consequences be damned — especially if they’re far enough delayed in time that we get to enjoy the here and now.

Two additional links (here and here) provide abundant further information on population growth if one desired to delve more deeply into the topic. The tone of these sites is sober, measured, and academic. As with climate change, hysterical and panic-provoking alarmism is avoided, but dangers known decades and centuries ago have persisted without serious redress. While it’s true that growth rate (a/k/a replacement rate) has decreased considerably since its peak in 1960 or so (the height of the postwar baby boom), absolute numbers continue to climb. The lack of immediate concern reminds me of Al Bartlett’s articles and lectures on the failure to understand the exponential function in math (mentioned in my prior post). Sure, boring old math about which few care. The metaphor that applies is yeast growing in a culture with a doubling factor that makes everything look just peachy until the final doubling that kills everything. In this metaphor, people are the unthinking yeast that believe there’s plenty of room and food and other resources in the culture (i.e., on the planet) and keep consuming and reproducing until everyone dies en mass. How far away in time that final human doubling is no one really knows.

Which brings me to something rather ugly: hearings to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. No doubt conservative Republican presidents nominate similarly conservative judges just as Democratic presidents nominate progressive centrist judges. That’s to be expected. However, Kavanaugh is being asked pointed questions about settled law and legal precedents perpetually under attack by more extreme elements of the right wing, including Roe v. Wade from 1973. Were we (in the U.S.) to revisit that decision and remove legal abortion (already heavily restricted), public outcry would be horrific, to say nothing of the return of so-called back-alley abortions. Almost no one undertakes such actions lightly. A look back through history, however, reveals a wide range of methods to forestall pregnancy, end pregnancies early, and/or end newborn life quickly (infanticide). Although repugnant to almost everyone, attempts to legislate abortion out of existence and/or punish lawbreakers will succeed no better than did Prohibition or the War Against Drugs. (Same can be said of premarital and underage sex.) Certain aspects of human behavior are frankly indelible despite the moral indignation of one or another political wing. Whether Kavanaugh truly represents the linchpin that will bring new upheavals is impossible to know with certainty. Stay tuned, I guess.

Abortion rights matter quite a lot when placed in context with population growth. Aggregate human behaviors drive out of existence all sorts of plant and animal populations routinely. This includes human populations (domestic and foreign) reduced to abject poverty and mad, often criminal scrambles for survival. The view from on high is that those whose lives fall below some measure of worthwhile contribution are useless eaters. (I don’t recommend delving deeper into that term; it’s a particularly ugly ideology with a long, tawdry history.) Yet removing abortion rights would almost certainly  swell those ranks. Add this topic to the growing list of things I just don’t get.

A paradoxical strength/weakness of reason is its inherent disposition toward self-refutation. It’s a bold move when undertaken with genuine interest in getting things right. Typically, as evidence piles up, consensus forms that’s tantamount to proof unless some startling new counter-evidence appears. Of course, intransigent deniers exist and convincing refutations do appear periodically, but accounts of two hotly contested topics (from among many) — evolution and climate change — are well established notwithstanding counterclaims completely disproportionate in their ferocity to the evidence. For rationalists, whatever doubts remain must be addressed and accommodated even if disproof is highly unlikely.

This becomes troublesome almost immediately. So much new information is produced in the modern world that, because I am duty-bound to consider it, my head spins. I simply can’t deal with it all. Inevitably, when I think I’ve put a topic to rest and conclude I don’t have to think too much more about it, some argument-du-jour hits the shit pile and I am forced to stop and reconsider. It’s less disorienting when facts are clear, but when interpretive, I find my head all too easily spun by the latest, greatest claims of some charming, articulate speaker able to cobble together evidence lying outside of my expertise.

Take for instance Steven Pinker. He speaks in an authoritative style and has academic credentials that dispose me to trust his work. His new book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). Still, Pinker is an optimist, whereas I’m a doomer. Even though I subscribe to Enlightenment values (for better or worse, my mind is bent that way), I can’t escape a mountain of evidence that we’ve made such a mess of things that reason, science, humanism, and progress are hardly panaceas capable of saving us from ourselves. Yet Pinker argues that we’ve never had it so good and the future looks even brighter. I won’t take apart Pinker’s arguments; it’s already been done by Jeremy Lent, who concludes that Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. Lent has the expertise, data, and graphs to demonstrate it. Calling Pinker a charlatan would be unfair, but his appreciation of the state of the world stands in high contrast with mine. Who ya gonna believe?

Books and articles like Pinker’s appear all the time, and in their aftermath, so, too, do takedowns. That’s the marketplace of ideas battling it out, which is ideally meant to sharpen thinking, but with the current epistemological crises under way (I’ve blogged about it for years), the actual result is dividing people into factions, destabilizing established institutions, and causing no small amount of bewilderment in the public as to what and whom to believe. Some participants in the exchange of ideas take a sober, evidential approach; others lower themselves to snark and revel in character assassination without bothering to make reasoned arguments. The latter are often called a hit pieces (a special province of the legacy media, it seems), since hefty swipes and straw-man arguments tend to be commonplace. I’m a sucker for the former style but have to admit that the latter can also hit its mark. However, both tire me to the point of wanting to bury my head.

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If the previous blog in this series was about how some ideas and beliefs become lodged or stuck in place (fixity bias), this one is about how other ideas are notoriously mutable (flexibility bias), especially the latest, loudest thing to turn one’s head and divert attention. What makes any particular idea (or is it the person?) prone to one bias or another (see this list) is mysterious to me, but my suspicion is that a character disposition toward openness and adherence to authoritative evidence figure prominently in the case of shifting opinion. In fact, this is one of the primary problems with reason: if evidence can be deployed in favor of an idea, those who consider themselves “reasonable” and thus rely on accumulation of evidence and argumentation to sharpen their thinking are vulnerable to the latest “finding” or study demonstrating sumpinorutha. It’s the intellectual’s version of “New! Improved!”

Sam Harris exploits rationalism to argue against the existence of free will, saying that if sufficient evidence can be brought to bear, a disciplined thinker is compelled to subscribe to the conclusions of reasoned argument. Choice and personal agency (free will) are removed. I find that an odd way to frame the issue. Limitless examples of lack of choice are nonequivalent to the destruction of free will. For example, one can’t decide not to believe in gravity and fly up into the air more than a few inches. One can’t decide that time is an illusion (as theoretical physicists now instruct) and decide not to age. One can’t decide that pooping is too disgusting and just hold it all in (as some children attempt). Counter-evidence doesn’t even need to be argued because almost no one pretends to believe such nonsense. (Twisting one’s mind around to believe in the nonexistence of time, free will, or the self seems to be the special province of hyper-analytical thinkers.) Yet other types of belief/denial — many of them conspiracy theories — are indeed choices: religion, flat Earth, evolution, the Holocaust, the moon landings, 9/11 truth, who really killed JFK, etc. Lots of evidence has been mustered on different sides (multiple facets, actually) of each of these issues, and while rationalists may be compelled by a preponderance of evidence in favor of one view, others are free to fly in the face of that evidence for reasons of their own or adopt by default the dominant narrative and not worry or bother so much.

The public struggles in its grasp of truthful information, as reported in a Pew Research Center study called “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News.” Here’s the snapshot:

The main portion of the study, which measured the public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of Americans correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.

Indiscriminate adoption by many Americans of a faulty viewpoint, or more pointedly, the propaganda and “fake news” on offer throughout the information environment, carries the implication that disciplined thinkers are less confused about truth or facts, taking instead a rational approach as the basis for belief. However, I suggest that reason suffers its own frailties not easily recognized or acknowledged. In short, we’re all confused, though perhaps not hopelessly so. For several years now, I’ve sensed the outline of a much larger epistemological crisis where quintessential Enlightenment values have come under open attack. The irony is that the wicked stepchild of science and reason — runaway technology —  is at least partially responsible for this epochal conflict. It’s too big an idea to grok fully or describe in a paragraph or two, so I’ll simply point to it an move on.

My own vulnerability to flexibility bias manifests specifically in response to appeals to authority. Although well educated, a lifelong autodidact, and an independent thinker, I’m careful not to succumb to the hubris of believing I’ve got it all figgered. Indeed, it’s often said that as one gains expertise and experience in the world, the certainty of youth yields to caution precisely because the mountain of knowledge and understanding one lacks looms larger even as one accumulates wisdom. Bodies of thought become multifaceted and all arguments must be entertained. When an expert, researcher, or academic proposes something outside my wheelhouse, I’m a sitting duck: I latch onto the latest, greatest utterance as the best truth yet available. I don’t fall for it nearly so readily with journalists, but I do recognize that some put in the effort and gain specialized knowledge and context well outside the bounds of normal life, such as war reporters. Various perverse incentives deeply embedded in the institutional model of journalism, especially those related to funding, make it nearly impossible to maintain one’s integrity without becoming a pariah, so only a handful have kept my attention. John Pilger, Chris Hedges, and Matt Taibbe figure prominently.

By way of example, one of the topics that has been of supreme interest to me, though its historical remove renders it rather toothless now, is the cataclysm(s) that occurred at the conclusion of the last ice age roughly 12,000 years ago. At least three hypotheses (of which I’m aware) have been proposed to explain why glacial ice disappeared suddenly over the course of a few weeks, unleashing the Biblical Flood: Earth crust displacement, asteroidal impact(s), and coronal mass ejection(s). Like most hypotheses, evidence is both physical and conjectural, but a sizable body of evidence and argumentation for each is available. As I became familiar with each, my head turned and I became a believer, sorta. Rather than “last one is the rotten egg,” however, the latest, most recent one typically displaces the previous one. No doubt another hypothesis will appear to turn my head and disorient me further. With some topics, especially politics, new information piling on top of old is truly dizzying. And as I’ve written about many topics, I simply lack the expertise to referee competing claims, so whatever beliefs I eventually adopt are permanently provisional.

Finally, my vulnerability to authoritative appeal also reacts to the calm, unflappable tones and complexity of construction of speakers such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Charles Murray. Their manner of speaking is sometimes described pejoratively as “academese,” though only Pinker has a teaching position. Murray in particular relies heavily on psychometrics, which may not be outright lying with statistics but allows him to rationalize (literally) extraordinarily taboo subjects. In contrast, it’s easy to disregard pundits and press agents foaming and fulminating over their pet narratives. Yet I also recognize that with academese, I’m being soothed more by style than by substance, a triumph of form over function. In truth, this communication style is an appeal to emotion masquerading as an appeal to authority. I still prefer it, just as I prefer a steady, explanatory style of journalism over the snarky, reinterpretive style of disquisition practiced by many popular media figures. What communicates most effectively to me and (ironically) pushes my emotional buttons also weakens my ability to discriminate and think properly.

Yet still more to come in part 5.

Language acquisition in early childhood is aided by heavy doses of repetition and the memorable structure of nursery rhymes, songs, and stories that are repeated ad nauseum to eager children. Please, again! Again, again … Early in life, everything is novel, so repetition and fixity are positive attributes rather than causes for boredom. The music of one’s adolescence is also the subject of endless repetition, typically through recordings (radio and Internet play, mp3s played over headphones or earbuds, dances and dance clubs, etc.). Indeed, most of us have mental archives of songs heard over and over to the point that the standard version becomes canonical: that’s just the way the song goes. When someone covers a Beatles song, it’s recognizably the same song, yet it’s not the same and may even sound wrong somehow. (Is there any acceptable version of Love Shack besides that of the B52’s?) Variations of familiar folk tales and folk songs, or different phrasing in The Lord’s Prayer, imprinted in memory through sheer repetition, also possess discomfiting differences, sometimes being offensive enough to cause real conflict. (Not your Abrahamic deity, mine!)

Performing musicians traverse warhorses many times in rehearsal and public performance so that, after an undetermined point, how one performs a piece just becomes how it goes, admitting few alternatives. Casual joke-tellers may improvise over an outline, but as I understand it, the pros hone and craft material over time until very little is left to chance. Anyone who has listened to old comedy recordings of Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and others has probably learned the jokes (and timing and intonation) by heart — again through repetition. It’s strangely comforting to be able to go back to the very same performance again and again. Personally, I have a rather large catalogue of classical music recordings in my head. I continue to seek out new renditions, but often the first version I learned becomes the default version, the way something goes. Dislodging that version from its definitive status is nearly impossible, especially when it’s the very first recording of a work (like a Beatles song). This is also why live performance often fails in comparison with the studio recording.

So it goes with a wide variety of phenomenon: what is first established as how something goes easily becomes canonical, dogmatic, and unquestioned. For instance, the origin of the universe in the big bang is one story of creation to which many still hold, while various religious creation myths hold sway with others. News that the big bang has been dislodged from its privileged position goes over just about as well as dismissing someone’s religion. Talking someone out of a fixed belief is hardly worth the effort because some portion of one’s identity is anchored to such beliefs. Thus, to question a cherished belief is to impeach a person’s very self.

Political correctness is the doctrine that certain ideas and positions have been worked out effectively and need (or allow) no further consideration. Just subscribe and get with the program. Don’t bother doing the mental work or examining the issue oneself; things have already been decided. In science, steady evidenciary work to break down a fixed understanding is often thankless, or thanks arrives posthumously. This is the main takeaway of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: paradigms are changed as much through attrition as through rational inquiry and accumulation of evidence.

One of the unanticipated effects of the Information and Communications Age is the tsunami of information to which people have ready access. Shaping that information into a cultural narrative (not unlike a creation myth) is either passive (one accepts the frequently shifting dominant paradigm without compunction) or active (one investigates for oneself as an attribute of the examined life, which with wizened folks never really arrives at a destination, since it’s the journey that’s the point). What’s a principled rationalist to do in the face of a surfeit of alternatives available for or even demanding consideration? Indeed, with so many self-appointed authorities vying for control over cultural narratives like the editing wars on Wikipedia, how can one avoid the dizzying disorientation of gaslighting and mendacity so characteristic of the modern information environment?

Still more to come in part 4.

rant on/

Authors I read and podcasters to whom I listen, mostly minor celebrities of the nonentertainment kind, often push their points of view using lofty appeals to reason and authority as though they possess unique access to truth but which is lacking among those whose critical thinking may be more limited. Seems to be the special province of pundits and thought leaders shilling their own books, blogs, newspaper columns, and media presence (don’t forget to comment and subscribe! ugh …). The worst offender on the scene may well be Sam Harris, who has run afoul of so many others recently that a critical mass is now building against him. With calm, even tones, he musters his evidence (some of it hotly disputed) and builds his arguments with the serene confidence of a Kung Fu master yet is astonished and amazed when others don’t defer to his rhetoric. He has behaved of late like he possesses heroic superpowers only to discover that others wield kryptonite or magic sufficient to defeat him. It’s been quite a show of force and folly. I surmise the indignity of suffering fools, at least from Harris’ perspective, smarts quite a bit, and his mewling does him no credit. So far, the person refusing most intransigently to take the obvious lesson from this teachable moment is Harris himself.

Well, I’m here to say that reason is no superpower. Indeed, it can be thwarted rather handily by garden-variety ignorance, stupidity, emotion, superstition, and fantasy. All of those are found in abundance in the public sphere, whereas reason is in rather short supply. Nor is reason a panacea, if only one could get everyone on board. None of this is even remotely surprising to me, but Harris appears to be taken aback that his interlocutors, many of whom are sophisticated thinkers, are not easily convinced. In the ivory tower or echo chamber Harris has constructed for himself, those who lack scientific rigor and adherence to evidence (or even better, facts and data) are infrequently admitted to the debate. He would presumably have a level playing field, right? So what’s going on that eludes Sam Harris?

As I’ve been saying for some time, we’re in the midst of an epistemological crisis. Defenders of Enlightenment values (logic, rationalism, detachment, equity, secularism), most of whom are academics, are a shrinking minority in the new democratic age. Moreover, the Internet has put regular, perhaps unschooled folks (Joe the Plumber, Ken Bone, any old Kardashian, and celebrities used to being the undeserved focus of attention) in direct dialogue with everyone else through deplorable comments sections. Journalists get their say, too, and amplify the unwashed masses when resorting to man-on-the-street interviews. At Gin and Tacos (see blogroll), this last is called the Cletus Safari. The marketplace of ideas has accordingly been so corrupted by the likes of, well, ME! that self-appointed public intellectuals like Harris can’t contend effectively with the onslaught of pure, unadulterated democracy where everyone participates. (Authorities claim to want broad civic participation, as when they exhort everyone to vote, but the reverse is more nearly true.) Harris already foundered on the shoals of competing truth claims when he hosted on his webcast a fellow academic, Jordan Peterson, yet failed to make any apparent adjustments in the aftermath. Reason remains for Harris the one true faith.

Furthermore, Jonathan Haidt argues (as I understand him, correct me if I’m mistaken) that motivated reasoning leads to cherry-picking facts and evidence. In practice, that means that selection bias results in opinions being argued as facts. Under such conditions, even well-meaning folks are prone to peddling false certainty. This may well be the case with Charles Murray, who is at the center of the Harris debacle. Murray’s arguments are fundamentally about psychometrics, a data-driven subset of sociology and psychology, which under ideal circumstances have all the dispassion of a stone. But those metrics are applied at the intersection of two taboos, race and intelligence (who knew? everyone but Sam Harris and Charles Murray …), then transmuted into public policy recommendations. If Harris were more circumspect, he might recognize that there is simply no way to divorce emotion from discussions of race and intelligence.

rant off/

More to say on this subject in part 2 to follow.

We’re trashing the planet. Everyone gets that, right? I’ve written several posts about trash, debris, and refuse littering and orbiting the planet, one of which is arguably among my greatest hits owing to the picture below showing The Boneyard outside Tucson, Arizona. That particular scene no longer exists as those planes were long ago repurposed.


I’ve since learned that boneyards are a worldwide phenomenon (see this link) falling under the term urbex. Why re-redux? Two recent newbits attracted my attention. The first is an NPR article about Volkswagen buying back its diesel automobiles — several hundred thousand of them to the tune of over $7 billion. You remember: the ones that scandalously cheated emissions standards and ruined Volkswagen’s reputation. The article features a couple startling pictures of automobile boneyards, though the vehicles are still well within their usable life (many of them new, I surmise) rather than retired after a reasonable term. Here’s one pic:

The other newsbit is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now as much as 16 times bigger than we thought it was — and getting bigger. Lots of news sites reported on this reassessment. This link is one. In fact, there are multiple garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean, as well as in other oceanic bodies, including the Arctic Ocean where all that sea ice used to be.

Though not specifically about trashing the planet (at least with trash), the Arctic sea ice issue looms large in my mind. Given the preponderance of land mass in the Northern Hemisphere and the Arctic’s foundational role in climate stabilization, the predicted disappearance of sea ice in the Arctic (at least in the summertime) may truly be the unrecoverable climate tipping point. I’m not a scientist and rarely recite data or studies in support of my understandings. Others handle that part of the climate change story far better than I could. However, the layperson’s explanation that makes sense to me is that, like ice floating in a glass of liquid, gradual melting and disappearance of ice keeps the surrounding liquid stable just above freezing. Once the ice is fully melted, however, the surrounding liquid warms rapidly to match ambient temperature. If the temperature of Arctic seawater rises high enough to slow or disallow reformation of winter ice, that could well be the quick, ugly end to things some of us expect.