Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Can psychological scientists make the world a better place?

I want to point to the January 2019 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science that addresses the question asked in the title of this post. It includes open source articles from more than 20 renowned psychological scientists. The issue is devoted to highlighting the ways that psychological scientists are currently applying their knowledge and skills to make the world a better place. From the introduction to the issue by Gruber et al.:
Psychological science is a multifaceted “hub science”, relevant and connected to many other disciplines. Rapid technological advances have enabled scientists to measure psychological phenomena from bodily responses invisible to the human eye through broad group behavior in large societies and then apply these findings to real-world issues to enhance human well-being and enact real-world behavioral and policy changes. Yet despite this remarkable progress, critical global issues face our society that call for immediate attention and action from psychological scientists. For example, within the past decade, we have seen escalating rates of serious and costly mental-health challenges in young adults and concurrent failure to provide mental-health treatment to those who need it the most; increases in self-reported loneliness and isolation that may compromise physical and mental health; high rates of sexual harassment and incivility toward women in the workplace and in science itself; political policy decisions that actively harm vulnerable children and their parents seeking refuge and a better life; seeming lack of concern for the welfare of many sentient nonhuman species; and rapid environmental degradation and climate change.
In the face of these and other ominous challenges, we argue that the time is ripe for our field to engage more deeply with societal issues. As a discipline that intersects with many other disciplines and with the public directly, psychological science is well positioned to contribute to cultivating a healthier, happier, and more sustainable world.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The passing of governance to corporate oligarchies serving the top 10%?

Three recent articles suggest to me a direction for our future. Bret Stephens' article describes the U.S. and Great Britain as rudderless and scarcely able to govern themselves, never mind shape world order. Several other Western democracies are facing crises in governance. Into this void steps Larry Fink (the chief of BlackRock and the world's biggest investor) whose annual letter lectures corporations that it is now their duty to look beyond profits, and contribute to society, serving a social purpose. The mega-corporations that dominate the U.S. and international capital flows are now a more stable buffer against chaos that any individual governments. BUT, ultimately who do these titans serve? Not the top 0.1%, but, as matthew stewart documents in excruciating detail, a more broad aristocracy, in America the top 9.9%. His article presents a mind-numbing list of the hundreds  of ways, both through legal and social customs, that the meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people's children.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The bacteria in your gut reveal your true age.

Galkin et al. find that the composition of our gut microbiota can approximately reveal our age. Some microbes become more abundant with aging while others decrease. Their abstract:
The human gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem that both affects and is affected by its host status. Previous analyses of gut microflora revealed associations between specific microbes and host health and disease status, genotype and diet. Here, we developed a method of predicting the biological age of the host based on the microbiological profiles of gut microbiota using a curated dataset of 1,165 healthy individuals (1,663 microbiome samples). Our predictive model, a human microbiome clock, has an architecture of a deep neural network and achieves the accuracy of 3.94 years mean absolute error in cross-validation. The performance of the deep microbiome clock was also evaluated on several additional populations. We further introduce a platform for biological interpretation of individual microbial features used in age models, which relies on permutation feature importance and accumulated local effects. This approach has allowed us to define two lists of 95 intestinal biomarkers of human aging. We further show that this list can be reduced to 39 taxa that convey the most information on their host's aging. Overall, we show that (a) microbiological profiles can be used to predict human age; and (b) microbial features selected by models are age-related.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Upstairs/ Downstairs in our Brain - Who (or what) is running our show?


I want to pass on to MindBlog readers the lecture notes and slides from a talk I gave yesterday to "NOVA" - one of five senior learning programs hosted by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the Univ. of Texas. The talk has the title of this post. Here is a final summary slide from the talk:


Upstairs/Downstairs - Who or what is running our show?

I.  What is happening as our “I” acts and senses in the world?

  A. Our subjective “I” is predictions that are late to sensing and acting.
  B.  What we experience is our prediction of what is out there, or what the sensory consequence of our actions will be
  C. We can place our experienced body inside or outside our actual one.
  D. The “I” or self that we experience is an illusion, a virtual avatar in our brain.

II.  What behaviors are coming from upstairs and downstairs?

   A. Downstairs dominates rapid actions and judgements.
   B. Upstairs modulates this with slower reasoned responses.
   C. Reasons and emotions cause each other.
   D. Different personality types have different upstairs profiles.

III.  What is happening in paying attention versus mind wandering?

  A. Mind wandering is a transient loss of mental autonomy.
  B. Mind wandering and default mode networks stabilize our self model. 
  C. Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation.
  D. A wandering mind can be an unhappy mind.

IV. How might we observe and influence what our brains are doing?

  A.  Attention can be trained by meditation-like activities
  B.  Attention training, like training for other skills, causes brain changes. 
  C.  Attention training can allow more autonomy in choosing actions and emotions, making us more pilot than passenger of our ship.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Why 2018 was the best year in human history.

Nicholas Kristof provides an antidote to the doom and gloom surrounding national and international politics in his Op-Ed piece, which is essentially an update of Pinker's recent book "Enlightenment Now," which I made the subject of several MindBlog posts starting last March 1st.  News media thrive on reporting wars, massacres and famines but are less focused on progress. Meanwhile, in the background, a lot of boring good stuff is happening which is ignored by the press. Clips on what happened in 2018:
 - Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time...another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time...an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time...86 percent of all 1-year-olds have been vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis

-about 4 percent of children worldwide now die by the age of 5. That’s still horrifying, but it’s down from 19 percent in 1960 and 7 percent in 2003.

 -nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty is worsening or staying the same, when in fact the most important trend in the world is arguably a huge reduction in poverty... in the early 1980s, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (defined as less than about $2 a person per day). Now, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, as adjusted for inflation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Different meditation practices differently buffer from stress.

A group at the University of Wisconsin lead by my colleague Richard Davidson looks a the effects of different styles of brief contemplative practices:
Mindfulness practices are increasingly being utilized as a method for cultivating well-being. The term mindfulness is often used as an umbrella for a variety of different practices and many mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) contain multiple styles of practice. Despite the diversity of practices within MBIs, few studies have investigated whether constituent practices produce specific effects. We randomized 156 undergraduates to one of four brief practices: breath awareness, loving-kindness, gratitude, or to an attention control condition. We assessed practice effects on affect following brief training, and effects on affect and behavior after provocation with a stressor (i.e., Cold pressor test). Results indicate that gratitude training significantly improved positive affect compared to breath awareness (d = 0.58) and loving-kindness led to significantly greater reductions in implicit negative affect compared to the control condition (d = 0.59) immediately after brief practice. In spite of gains in positive affect, the gratitude group demonstrated increased reactivity to the stressor, reporting the CPT as significantly more aversive than the control condition (d = 0.46) and showing significantly greater increases in negative affect compared to the breath awareness, loving-kindness, and control groups (ds = 0.55, 0.60, 0.65, respectively). Greater gains in implicit positive affect following gratitude training predicted decreased post-stressor likability ratings of novel neutral faces compared to breath awareness, loving-kindness, and control groups (ds = - 0.39, -0.40, -0.33, respectively) as well. Moreover, the gratitude group was significantly less likely to donate time than the loving-kindness group in an ecologically valid opportunity to provide unrewarded support. These data suggest that different styles of contemplative practice may produce different effects in the context of brief, introductory practice and these differences may be heightened by stress. Implications for the study of contemplative practices are discussed.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Does meditation provide the only way to survive our brain-dissolving technological and political environment?

Both the last chapter of Harari's "21 Lessons for the 21st Century" (abstracted in MindBlog here) and a recent Op-Ed piece by NYTimes tech columnist Farhad Manjoo suggest that the only means of maintaining sanity in the face of the overwhelmingly complex technological and political environment we face is to turn inwards -  away from all the input competing for our attention - and cultivate some insight into our internal body environments and mental practices that provide the basic foundation from which we proceed to experience our outer world...in other words, to practice some form of meditation.  For Harari meditation is:
...not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality…Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens or Homo Deus…Over the millennia humans have developed hundreds of meditation techniques, which differ in their principles and effectiveness….but in principle meditation is any method for the direct observation of one’s own mind…Serious meditation demands a tremendous amount of discipline…If we are willing to make efforts to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us…For a few more years or decades, we still have a choice. If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.
From Manjoo, meditation is:
...the subject of countless books, podcasts, conferences, a million-dollar app war. It’s extolled by C.E.O.s and entertainers and even taught in my kids’ elementary school (again, it’s Northern California). The fad is backed by reams of scientific research showing the benefits of mindfulness for your physical and mental health — how even short-term stints improve your attention span and your ability to focus, your memory, and other cognitive functions.
After decades of swimming in the frenetic digital waters, I found that my mind was often too scrambled to accommodate much focus. Sitting calmly, quietly and attempting to sharpen my thoughts on the present moment was excruciating...about four months ago, I brute-forced it: I made meditation part of my morning routine and made myself stick with it. I started with 10 minutes a day, then built up to 15, 20, then 30. Eventually, something clicked, and the benefits became noticeable, and then remarkable.
The best way I can describe the effect is to liken it to a software upgrade for my brain — an update designed to guard against the terrible way the online world takes over your time and your mind...Now, even without app blockers, I can stay away from mindless online haunts without worrying that I’m missing out. I can better distinguish what’s important from what’s trivial, and I’m more gracious and empathetic with others online...I hope you give it a try. I hope everyone does. (The Times’s David Gelles has written a great guide for getting started.)









Friday, January 11, 2019

The illusion of multitasking improves performance.

From Srna et al.:
With technological advancements, the desire, ability, and often necessity to multitask are pervasive. Although multitasking refers to the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks, most activities that require active attention cannot actually be done simultaneously. Therefore, whether a certain activity is considered multitasking is often a matter of perception. This article demonstrates the malleability of what people perceive as multitasking, showing that the same activity may or may not be construed as multitasking. Importantly, although engaging in multiple tasks may diminish performance, we found that, holding the activity constant, the mere perception of multitasking in fact improves performance. Across 32 studies (30 of which had performance-based incentives) containing a total of 8,242 participants, we found that individuals who perceived an activity as multitasking were more engaged and consequently outperformed those who perceived that same activity as single tasking.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Real world demonstration of how tribes determine opinions.

From Satherley et al.:
Real-world tests of the impact of partisan cues on voters are scarce because they require assessing how citizens’ attitudes changed toward an issue from before to after it became politically divisive. During the 2015–2016 New Zealand flag referendums, the leader of the (center-right) National Party and then–Prime Minister, John Key, championed changing the flag—a move strongly contested by the (center-left) Labour Party. Accordingly, we measured New Zealanders’ attitudes toward changing the flag using national longitudinal panel data collected in 2013, before the change was proposed, and again in 2016 at the height of the debate (Ns = 6,793–6,806). Registered voters who supported the National Party were more likely to shift from opposing to supporting the flag change, whereas those who supported the Labour Party were more likely to shift from supporting to opposing the change. These data demonstrate the powerful impact of partisan cues on political attitudes in a real-world setting.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

People use less information than they think to make up their minds

Klein and O'Brien (open access, ) note another of our psychological biases or shortcomings. We perform Manichean good or bad characterizations with much less information than we imagine:

Significance
People readily categorize things as good or bad, a welcome adaptation that enables action and reduces information overload. The present research reveals an unforeseen consequence: People do not fully appreciate this immediacy of judgment, instead assuming that they and others will consider more information before forming conclusions than they and others actually do. This discrepancy in perceived versus actual information use reveals a general psychological bias that bears particular relevance in today’s information age. Presumably, one hopes that easy access to abundant information fosters uniformly more-informed opinions and perspectives. The present research suggests mere access is not enough: Even after paying costs to acquire and share ever-more information, people then stop short and do not incorporate it into their judgments.
Abstract
A world where information is abundant promises unprecedented opportunities for information exchange. Seven studies suggest these opportunities work better in theory than in practice: People fail to anticipate how quickly minds change, believing that they and others will evaluate more evidence before making up their minds than they and others actually do. From evaluating peers, marriage prospects, and political candidates to evaluating novel foods, goods, and services, people consume far less information than expected before deeming things good or bad. Accordingly, people acquire and share too much information in impression-formation contexts: People overvalue long-term trials, overpay for decision aids, and overwork to impress others, neglecting the speed at which conclusions will form. In today’s information age, people may intuitively believe that exchanging ever-more information will foster better-informed opinions and perspectives—but much of this information may be lost on minds long made up.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Stimulating creativity with alternating current transcranial brain stimulation

So... the actual title of the article by Di Bernardi et al. is "Right temporal alpha oscillations as a neural mechanism for inhibiting obvious associations" - but as you see from the abstract, this translates to describing a brain stimulation procedure for inhibiting habitual thinking and associations to enhance novel thinking. The trick is to induce right temporal lobe alpha (10 HZ) oscillations. I'm sure DIY kits to perform the procedure will be on the market soon. Entering 'alpha wave stimulator' in google search points to crude alpha enhancing devices that work through electrodes attached to the ears, claimed to relieve pain, control anxiety, fight depression, or treat insomnia.

Significance
“Taking a less-traveled path” is often considered an effective approach to creativity (i.e., creative thinking calls for a break from habitual thinking and associations), yet little is known about its underlying neural mechanism. In a series of four independent experiments involving electrophysiological and brain stimulation methods we provide evidence that this process is mediated by the right temporal alpha oscillations. Alpha oscillations are known to represent a process of active inhibition to suppress irrelevant information, such as inhibiting distractions during visual search. Through monitoring the brain’s electrical activity during different creativity tasks and by stimulating the right temporal brain region at the alpha frequency we show that a similar process of active inhibition is also key to creative thinking.
Abstract
Creative cognition requires mental exploration of remotely connected concepts while suppressing dominant ones. Across four experiments using different samples of participants, we provide evidence that right temporal alpha oscillations play a crucial role in inhibiting habitual thinking modes, thereby paving the way for accessing more remote ideas. In the first experiment, participants completed the compound remote associate task (RAT) in three separate sessions: during right temporal alpha (10 Hz) transcranial alternating current brain stimulation (tACS), left temporal alpha tACS, and sham tACS. Participants performed better under right tACS only on RAT items in which two of the three words shared misleading semantic associations. In the second experiment, we measured EEG while the participants solved RAT items with or without shared misleading associations. We observed an increase in right temporal alpha power when participants correctly solved RAT items with misleading semantic associations. The third experiment demonstrated that while solving divergent thinking tasks participants came up with more remote ideas when stimulated by right temporal alpha tACS. In the fourth experiment, we found that participants showed higher right temporal alpha power when generating more remote uses for common objects. These studies altogether indicate that right temporal alpha oscillations may support creativity by acting as a neural mechanism for an active inhibition of obvious semantic associations.

Monday, January 07, 2019

The return of paganism

Continuing in the thread of the 12/28/18 post below, I want to point to a piece by Ross Douthat that suggests the return (or emergence) of a new spirituality that returns humans to their more fundamental roots of being a part of the natural order rather than its master. Some clips:
Institutional Christianity has weakened drastically since the 1960s...The mainline-Protestant establishment is an establishment no more. Religious belief and practice now polarizes our politics in a way they didn’t a few generations back.
...the secularization story — in which modern societies inevitably put away religious ideas as they advance in wealth and science and reason...is insufficient, because even with America’s churches in decline, the religious impulse has hardly disappeared. In the early 2000s, over 40 percent of Americans answered with an emphatic “yes” when Gallup asked them if “a profound religious experience or awakening”
...perhaps instead of secularization it makes sense to talk about a fragmentation and personalization of Christianity...in which traditional churches have been supplanted by self-help gurus and spiritual-political entrepreneurs.
Might there be
...a genuinely post-Christian future for America...the return of a pagan religious conception...A fascinating version of this argument is put forward by Steven D. Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, in his new book, “Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars From the Tiber to the Potomac.” Smith argues that much of what we understand as the march of secularism is something of an illusion, and that behind the scenes what’s actually happening in the modern culture war is the return of a pagan religious conception, which was half-buried (though never fully so) by the rise of Christianity.
...What is that conception? Simply this: that divinity is fundamentally inside the world rather than outside it, that God or the gods or Being are ultimately part of nature rather than an external creator, and that meaning and morality and metaphysical experience are to be sought in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent.
...you can build a plausible case for a “pagan” (by Smith’s definition) tradition in Western and American religion, which takes two major forms...First, there is a tradition of intellectual and aesthetic pantheism that includes figures like Spinoza, Nietzsche, Emerson and Whitman, and that’s manifest in certain highbrow spiritual-but-not-religious writers today. Smith recruits Sam Harris, Barbara Ehrenreich and even Ronald Dworkin to this club...Second, there is a civic religion that like the civic paganism of old makes religious and political duties identical, and treats the city of man as the city of God (or the gods), the place where we make heaven ourselves instead of waiting for the next life or the apocalypse.
These do not offer
...a practice of ritual and prayer of the kind that the paganism of antiquity offered in abundance. And that absence points to the essential weakness of a purely intellectualized pantheism..However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help...the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise...To get a fully revived paganism in contemporary America...the philosophers of pantheism and civil religion would need to build a religious bridge to the New Agers and neo-pagans, and together they would need to create a more fully realized cult of the immanent divine, an actual way to worship, not just to appreciate, the pantheistic order they discern.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." abstracted - Part 5 - Resilience

This is the fifth installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part V. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part V Resilience - How do you live in an age of bewilderment, when the old stories have collapsed and no new story has yet emerged to replace them?

Chapter 19 - Education - Change is the only constant

A baby born today will be thirtysomething in 2050…What kind of skills will he or she need in order to … navigate the maze of life?…At present, too many schools focus on cramming information into kids’ brains...the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. .. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information…to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world...Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs”—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity…In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products but above all to reinvent yourself again and again…From time immemorial life was divided into two complementary parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working…accelerating change plus longer life spans will make this traditional model obsolete…you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself, certainly at a young age like fifty…To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better—to know what you are and what you want from life…you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, and the government are all racing to hack you… you and your organic operating system… we are living in the era of hacking humans…if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it yourself, authority will shift to them… Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms… If, however, you want to retain some control over your personal existence and the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much baggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.

Chapter 20 - Meaning - Life is not a story.

In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story…To give meaning to my life, a story …must give me some role to play….it must extend beyond my horizons…Given everything we know about the universe, it would seem utterly impossible for any sane person to believe that the ultimate truth about the universe and human existence is the story of [any particular nation's nationalism]. A story that ignores almost the whole of time, the whole of space, the Big Bang, quantum physics, and the evolution of life is at most just a tiny part of the truth… a good story .. need not be true… yet [can] provide me with an identity and make me feel that my life has meaning. To the best of our scientific understanding, none of the thousands of stories that different cultures, religions, and tribes have invented throughout history is true. They are all just human inventions. If you ask for the true meaning of life and get a story in reply, know that this is the wrong answer…How do we make the story feel real? Priests and shamans discovered the answer to this question thousands of years ago: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real…in order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the “self” is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update, and rewrite…We humans have conquered the world thanks to our ability to create and believe fictional stories. We are therefore particularly bad at knowing the difference between fiction and reality. Overlooking this difference has been a matter of survival for us. If you nevertheless want to know the difference, the place to start is with suffering. Because as noted earlier, the realest thing in the world is suffering…Whenever politicians start talking in mystical terms, beware. They might be trying to disguise and excuse real suffering by wrapping it up in big, incomprehensible words. Be particularly careful about the following four words: “sacrifice,” “eternity,” “purity,” “redemption.”…always try to translate such hogwash into real terms: a soldier crying out in agony, a woman beaten and brutalized, a child shaking in fear…If you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.

Chapter 21 - Meditation - Just observe.

Now that I have criticized so many stories, religions, and ideologies, it is only fair that I put myself in the firing line too, and explain how somebody so skeptical can still manage to wake up cheerful in the morning…When I began studying at university, I thought it would be the ideal place to find answers. But I was disappointed….my good friend Ron suggested that I try putting aside all the books and intellectual discussions for a few days and take a Vipassana meditation course. … after a year of patient nudging, in April 2000 he convinced me to go to a ten-day Vipassana retreat…The first thing I learned by observing my breath was that .. I knew almost nothing about my mind, and I had very little control over it…If you try to objectively observe your sensations, the first thing you’ll notice is how wild and impatient the mind is, and how difficult it is to focus it even on a relatively distinct sensation such as breath…I think I learned more about myself and about humans in general by observing my sensations for those ten days than I had learned in my whole life up to that point… I just had to observe reality as it is. Since that first course in 2000, I began meditating for two hours every day, and each year I take a long meditation retreat of a month or two. It is not an escape from reality. It is getting in touch with reality…Without the focus and clarity provided by this practice, I could not have written Sapiens or Homo Deus…Over the millennia humans have developed hundreds of meditation techniques, which differ in their principles and effectiveness….but in principle meditation is any method for the direct observation of one’s own mind…Serious meditation demands a tremendous amount of discipline…If we are willing to make efforts to understand foreign cultures, unknown species, and distant planets, it might be worth working just as hard in order to understand our own minds. And we had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us…For a few more years or decades, we still have a choice. If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." abstracted - Part 4 - Truth

This is the fourth installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part IV. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part IV - Truth - If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track. Global processes have become too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can you know the truth about the world, and avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?

Chapter 15 - Ignorance - You know less than you think.

If you are left with the nagging feeling that this is too much, that you cannot process it all, you are absolutely right. No person can…In the last few centuries, liberal thought developed immense trust in the rational individual…[which] may well be a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of upper-class white men…behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than on rational analysis…woefully inadequate in the Silicon Age… We think we know a lot (“the knowledge illusion.”), even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own…People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming news feeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged…The problem of groupthink and individual ignorance besets …also presidents and CEOs…great power inevitably distorts the truth. Power is all about changing reality rather than seeing it for what it is.

Chapter 16 - Justice - Our sense of justice might be out of date.

Like all our other senses, our sense of justice also has ancient evolutionary roots. Human morality was shaped over the course of millions of years of evolution to deal with the social and ethical dilemmas that cropped up in the lives of small hunter-gatherer bands…Most of the injustices in the contemporary world result from large-scale structural biases rather than from individual prejudices, and our hunter-gatherer brains did not evolve to detect structural biases…In previous eras …you weren’t responsible for the plight of people halfway across the world. If you made an effort to sympathize with your less fortunate neighbors, that was usually enough. But today major global debates about things such as climate change and artificial intelligence have an impact on everybody—whether in Tasmania, Hangzhou, or Baltimore—so we need to take into account all viewpoints. Yet how can anyone do that? How can anyone understand the web of relations among thousands of intersecting groups across the world?…we now suffer from global problems, without having a global community.

Chapter 17 - Post-Truth - Some fake news lasts forever.

A cursory look at history reveals that propaganda and disinformation are nothing new, and even the habit of denying entire nations and creating fake countries has a long pedigree.…humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions…Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it “fake news” in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath)… For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit. By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible.you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some mythology… We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect paper currency…Instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognize it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction.

Chapter 18 Science Fiction - The future is not what you see in movies.

…perhaps the worst sin of present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness. As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens…[Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” is]… the most prophetic science-fiction book of the twentieth century…Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions…The current technological and scientific revolution implies not that authentic individuals and authentic realities can be manipulated by algorithms and TV cameras but rather that authenticity is a myth. People are afraid of being trapped inside a box, but they don’t realize that they are already trapped inside a box—their brain—which is locked within the bigger box of human society with its myriad fictions. When you escape the matrix the only thing you discover is a bigger matrix…According to the best scientific theories and the most up-to-date technological tools, the mind is never free of manipulation. There is no authentic self waiting to be liberated from the manipulative shell. Since your brain and your “self” are part of the matrix, to escape the matrix you must escape your self. That, however, is a possibility worth exploring. Escaping the narrow definition of self might well become a necessary survival skill in the twenty-first century.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." - abstracted - Part 3 - Despair and Hope

This is the third installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part III. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part III - Despair and Hope - Though the challenges are unprecedented, and though the disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.

Chapter 10 Terrorism - Don’t panic.

Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and rattle huge political structures such as the European Union or the United States… the terrorists hope that even though they can barely make a dent in the enemy’s material power, fear and confusion will cause the enemy to misuse his intact strength and overreact.that he will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. …States find it difficult to withstand these provocations because the legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence…The success or failure of terrorism depends on us. If we allow our imagination to be captured by the terrorists and then we overreact to our own fears, terrorism will succeed. If we free our imagination from the terrorists and then we react in a balanced and cool way, terrorism will fail.

Chapter 11 War - Never underestimate human stupidity.

The last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. … in a world now filling up with saber-rattling and bad vibes, perhaps our best guarantee of peace is that major powers aren’t familiar with recent examples of successful wars…even if it remains impossible to wage successful wars in the twenty-first century, that would not give us an absolute guarantee of peace. We should never underestimate human stupidity…One potential remedy for human stupidity is a dose of humility. National, religious, and cultural tensions are made worse by the grandiose feeling that my nation, my religion, and my culture are the most important in the world— and therefore my interests should come before the interests of anyone else, or of humankind as a whole.

Chapter 12 Humility - You are not the center of the world.

Most people tend to believe they are the center of the world, and their culture is the linchpin of human history…I will leave it to readers around the world to puncture the hot-air balloons inflated by their own tribes…morality in fact has deep evolutionary roots predating the appearance of humankind by millions of years…It makes absolutely no sense to credit Judaism and its Christian and Muslim offspring with the creation of human morality…the birth of bigotry…What about monotheism, then? Doesn’t Judaism at least deserve special praise for pioneering the belief in a single God, which was unparalleled anywhere else in the world…From an ethical perspective, monotheism was arguably one of the worst ideas in human history…What monotheism undoubtedly did was to make many people far more intolerant than before, thereby contributing to the spread of religious persecutions and holy wars…among all forms of humility, perhaps the most important is to have humility before God. Whenever they talk of God, humans all too often profess abject self-effacement, but then use the name of God to lord it over their brethren.

Chapter 13 God - Don’t take the name of God in vain.

Does God exist? That depends on which God you have in mind: the cosmic mystery, or the worldly lawgiver? The missing link between the cosmic mystery and the worldly lawgiver is usually provided through some holy book. The book is full of the most trifling regulations but is nevertheless attributed to the cosmic mystery…unlike the God of the Islamic State and the Crusades—who cares a lot about names and above all about His most holy name—the mystery of existence doesn’t care an iota what names we apes give it. As the last few centuries have proved, we don’t need to invoke God’s name in order to live a moral life. Secularism can provide us with all the values we need.

Chapter 14 Secularism - Acknowledge your shadow

…secularism is a very positive and active worldview, defined by a coherent code of values rather than by opposition to this or that religion. Unlike some sects that insist they have a monopoly over all wisdom and goodness, one of the chief characteristics of secular people is that they claim no such monopoly. … Rather, they view morality and wisdom as the natural legacy of all humans. ..secular people are comfortable with multiple, hybrid identities…The most important secular commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Secularists strive not to confuse truth with belief…secular movements repeatedly mutate into dogmatic creeds…Many capitalists keep repeating the mantra “free markets and economic growth” irrespective of realities on the ground, no matter what awful consequences occasionally result from modernization, industrialization, or privatization…Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow, and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the naive reassurance that “it cannot happen to us.” Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions—namely, that it is not inherently terrified of its shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Yuval Harari - "21 Lessons..." - abstracted - Part 2 - The Political Challenge

This is my second installment of clips taken from "21 Lessons for the 21st Century," Harari, Yuval Noah. Kindle Edition, Random House Publishing Group. Part II. My idiosyncratic choices of text reducing the contents of each chapter to a single paragraph miss many important points, and don't begin to replace a full reading of the chapter.

Part II - The Political Challenge - The merger of infotech and biotech threatens the core modern values of liberty and equality. Any solution the technological challenge has to involve global cooperation. But nationalism, religion, and culture divide humankind into hostile camps and make it very difficult to cooperate on a global level.

Chapter 5 Community - Humans have Bodies

 …over the past two centuries intimate communities have been disintegrating. …Zuckerberg promised that Facebook would lead the charge to rebuild communities and that his engineers would pick up the burden discarded by parish priests. priests. .. “make it easier to build communities.”…in order to truly flourish it will have to put down roots in the offline world too…Humans have bodies. During the last century technology has been distancing us from our bodies. We have been losing our ability to pay attention to what we smell and taste….Humans … cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world…this appreciation too has its downside...Once the tech giants come to terms with the human body, they might end up manipulating our entire bodies in the same way they currently manipulate our eyes, fingers, and credit cards. We may come to miss the good old days when online was separated from offline.

Chapter 6 Civilization - There is just one civilization in the world Today

...a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about two hundred sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws….they share many more political ideas and practices than not, including at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage, and human rights…almost everybody believes in a slightly different variation on the same capitalist theme, and we are all cogs within a single global production line…the dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides…when it comes to the practical stuff—how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb—almost all of us belong to the same civilization.

Chapter 7 Nationalism - Global problems need global answers

Will we make a world in which all humans can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Do Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, and their colleagues save the world by fanning our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?…A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has at least three such enemies—nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. If despite these common threats humans choose to privilege their particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

Chapter 8 Religion - God now serves the nation.

So far, modern ideologies, scientific experts, and national governments have failed to create a viable vision for the future of humanity. Can such a vision be drawn from the deep wells of human religious traditions?..No matter how technology will develop, we can expect that arguments about religious identities and rituals will continue to influence the use of new technologies, and might well retain the power to set the world ablaze. The most up-to-date nuclear missiles and cyber bombs might well be employed to settle a doctrinal argument about medieval texts…all of this really makes traditional religions part of humanity’s problem, not part of the remedy…humankind now constitutes a single civilization, and problems such as nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption can only be solved on the global level. On the other hand, nationalism and religion still divide our human civilization into different and often hostile camps.

Chapter 9 Immigration - Some cultures might be better than others.

Though globalization has greatly reduced cultural differences across the planet, it has simultaneously made it far easier to encounter strangers and become upset by their oddities…Do we enter the immigration debate with the assumption that all cultures are inherently equal, or do we think that some cultures might well be superior to others? Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of “culturists.”…culturism has a much firmer scientific basis than racism, and particularly scholars in the humanities and social sciences cannot deny the existence and importance of cultural differences…At present, it is far from clear whether Europe can find a middle path that will enable it to keep its gates open to strangers without being destabilized by people who don’t share its values. If Europe succeeds in finding such a path, perhaps its formula could be copied on the global level.

(As an antidote to Harari's doomsaying and dystopian futures, you might glance back at a similar abstracting series of posts,starting March 1, 2018, that I did on Pinker's book "Enlightenment Now.")