Friday, March 30, 2018

Young muscles and immune systems in aging cyclists.

I pass on the technical abstracts of two striking papers referenced by a Gretchen Reynolds article showing that the leg muscles and immune systems of 55-79 year adults who cycle approximately 400 miles/month are similar to those of young adults, suggesting that many features of immune and muscular senescence may be driven by reduced physical activity with age. By most estimates, only about 10 percent of people past the age of 65 work out regularly.

From Pollock et al.:
In this study, results are reported from the analyses of vastus lateralis muscle biopsy samples obtained from a subset (n = 90) of 125 previously phenotyped, highly active male and female cyclists aged 55-79 years in regard to age. We then subsequently attempted to uncover associations between the findings in muscle and in vivo physiological functions. Muscle fibre type and composition (ATPase histochemistry), size (morphometry), capillary density (immunohistochemistry) and mitochondrial protein content (Western blot) in relation to age were determined in the biopsy specimens. Aside from an age-related change in capillary density in males (r = -.299; p = .02), no other parameter measured in the muscle samples showed an association with age. However, in males type I fibres and capillarity (p < .05) were significantly associated with training volume, maximal oxygen uptake, oxygen uptake kinetics and ventilatory threshold. In females, the only association observed was between capillarity and training volume (p < .05). In males, both type II fibre proportion and area (p < .05) were associated with peak power during sprint cycling and with maximal rate of torque development during a maximal voluntary isometric contraction. Mitochondrial protein content was not associated with any cardiorespiratory parameter in either males or females (p > .05). We conclude in this highly active cohort, selected to mitigate most of the effects of inactivity, that there is little evidence of age-related changes in the properties of VL muscle across the age range studied. By contrast, some of these muscle characteristics were correlated with in vivo physiological indices.
and, from Duggal et al.:
It is widely accepted that aging is accompanied by remodelling of the immune system including thymic atrophy and increased frequency of senescent T cells, leading to immune compromise. However, physical activity, which influences immunity but declines dramatically with age, is not considered in this literature. We assessed immune profiles in 125 adults (55-79 years) who had maintained a high level of physical activity (cycling) for much of their adult lives, 75 age-matched older adults and 55 young adults not involved in regular exercise. The frequency of naïve T cells and recent thymic emigrants (RTE) were both higher in cyclists compared with inactive elders, and RTE frequency in cyclists was no different to young adults. Compared with their less active counterparts, the cyclists had significantly higher serum levels of the thymoprotective cytokine IL-7 and lower IL-6, which promotes thymic atrophy. Cyclists also showed additional evidence of reduced immunesenescence, namely lower Th17 polarization and higher B regulatory cell frequency than inactive elders. Physical activity did not protect against all aspects of immunesenescence: CD28-ve CD57+ve senescent CD8 T-cell frequency did not differ between cyclists and inactive elders. We conclude that many features of immunesenescence may be driven by reduced physical activity with age.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

How is tech dividing us?

Comments by David Autor during an interview by Nancy Scola:'s definitely the case that automation is raising the demand for skilled labor. And the work that I've done ... has been about what set of activities are complemented by automation and which set of activities is displaced, pointing out that on the one hand, there were tasks that were creative and analytical, and on the other, tasks that required dexterity and flexibility, which were very difficult to automate. So the middle of the skill distribution, where there are well understood rules and procedures, is actually much more susceptible to automation...That polarization of jobs definitely reduced the set of opportunities for people who don't have a college degree. People who have a high school or lower degree, it used to be they were in manufacturing, in clerical and administrative support. Now, increasingly, they're in cleaning, home health, security, etc.
The greater concern is not about the number of jobs but whether those jobs will pay decent wages and people will have sufficient skills to do them. That's the great challenge. It's never been a better time to be a highly educated worker in the western world. But there hasn't been a worse time to be a high school dropout or high school graduate.
...a lot of what we see—a lot of the political dissatisfaction, as well—comes from the fact that as average wealth and income in the U.S. have risen, it's a very, very geographically concentrated phenomenon. Most of that is basically New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston, Boston, and a couple other places. It's not broadly shared prosperity. A lot of the country is actually kind of downwardly mobile.
You could have imagined a world where we all have Skype and mobile phones and broadband, and no one commutes anywhere, and we all live in our remote hilltop houses overlooking the water, and we'd have no reason to travel. But that doesn't appear to be the case at all.
It appears that remote and in-person communications are complements, not substitutes. Somehow the force of people wanting to clump together has actually, seemingly, if anything gotten stronger. And when we talk about these geographic inequalities, that's what we're seeing.
There are two schools of thought that you hear often. One is, ‘the sky is falling, the robots are coming for our jobs, we're all screwed because we've made ourselves obsolete.’ The other version you also hear a lot is, ‘We've been through things like this in the past, it's all worked out fine, it took care of itself, don't worry.’ And I think both of these are really wrong.
I've indicated I think the first view is wrong. The reason I think the second view is wrong is because I don't think it took care of itself. Countries have very different levels of quality of life, institutional quality, of democracy, of liberty and opportunity, and those are not because they have different markets or different technologies. It's because they've made different institutional arrangements. Look at the example of Norway and Saudi Arabia, two oil-rich countries. Norway is a very happy place. It's economically mobile with high rates of labor force participation, high rates of education, good civil society. And Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that has high standards of living, but it's not a very happy place because they've stifled innovation and individual freedom. Those are two examples of taking the same technology, which is oil wealth, and either squandering it or investing it successfully.
I think the right lesson from history is that this is an opportunity. Things that raise GDP and make us more productive, they definitely create aggregate wealth. The question is, how do we use that wealth well to have a society that's mobile, that's prosperous, that's open? Or do we use it to basically make some people very wealthy and keep everyone else quiet? So, I think we are at an important juncture, and I don't think the U.S. is dealing with it especially well. Our institutions are very much under threat at a time when they're arguably most needed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Logic in babies.

Halberda does a commentary on work of Cesana-Arlotti et al. showing that one essential form of logical inference, process of elimination, is with the toolkit of 12 month old infants. They used that fact that visual behaviors - such as a shift in one's gaze or a prolonged stare - can be diagnostic of internal thoughts to demonstrate that preverbal infants can formulate a logical structure called a disjunctive syllogism. That is, if A or B is true, and A is false, then B must be true. Presenting infants with scenes where the outcome revealed B to be false evoked looks of surprise:
Cesana-Arlotti et al. asked whether prelinguistic 12- and 19-month-old infants would spontaneously reason using process of elimination. This is a form of inference also known as disjunctive syllogism or modus tollendo ponens—it is any argument of the form: A or B, not A, therefore B. Cesana-Arlotti et al. relied on one of the few behaviors babies voluntarily engage in—looking at whatever they find most interesting. They measured infants' looking at computerized vignettes in which two different objects (A and B) were shown being hidden behind a wall. Infants watched as a cup scooped one of the objects from behind the wall, and then came to rest next to the wall—critically, only the topmost edge of the contained object could be seen peeking out of the cup, such that infants could not tell for sure whether the object was A or B. At this moment, infants could have formed a disjunctive thought—for example, “either the object in the cup is object A or it is object B.” Next, this ambiguity was resolved: The wall dropped to reveal that object A was behind the wall, but the contents of the cup remained hidden. This is the moment of potential elimination, and an opportunity for infants to draw a key inference—“because object A is not in the cup, object B must be in the cup.” Finally, infants' expectations for the cup's contents were tested: Either the expected object (object B) or, surprisingly, another object A emerged from the cup. Infants looked longer at the surprising outcome—an indication that their expectations were violated and a hint that they were seeking further information to resolve the conflict.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Different kinds of smiles elicit different physiological responses

Martin et al. show that our stress chemistry (HPA, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) is augmented or dampened by different kinds of smiles:
When people are being evaluated, their whole body responds. Verbal feedback causes robust activation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. What about nonverbal evaluative feedback? Recent discoveries about the social functions of facial expression have documented three morphologically distinct smiles, which serve the functions of reinforcement, social smoothing, and social challenge. In the present study, participants saw instances of one of three smile types from an evaluator during a modified social stress test. We find evidence in support of the claim that functionally different smiles are sufficient to augment or dampen HPA axis activity. We also find that responses to the meanings of smiles as evaluative feedback are more differentiated in individuals with higher baseline high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), which is associated with facial expression recognition accuracy. The differentiation is especially evident in response to smiles that are more ambiguous in context. Findings suggest that facial expressions have deep physiological implications and that smiles regulate the social world in a highly nuanced fashion.

Monday, March 26, 2018

YouTube's A.I. finds that radicalization gets more ad revenue.

Tufekci points to yet another pathological social consequence of A.I. algorithms designed to make people stay on a website longer, and thus generate more clicks on advertisements that provide revenue. The YouTube algorithm "seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with — or to incendiary content in general." The author found that a YouTube video giving straightforward information on on a Trump rally was followed by autoplay videos "that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content." The author created another YouTube account to watch videos of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sander, and was soon auto-directed to "videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast, including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11." The same pattern emerges with nonpolitical topics, "Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons."
...a former Google engineer named Guillaume Chaslot...worked on the recommender algorithm while at YouTube...The Wall Street Journal conducted an investigation of YouTube content with the help of Mr. Chaslot. It found that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources,” and that such extremist tendencies were evident with a wide variety of material. If you searched for information on the flu vaccine, you were recommended anti-vaccination conspiracy videos.
It is also possible that YouTube’s recommender algorithm has a bias toward inflammatory content. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Mr. Chaslot created a program to keep track of YouTube’s most recommended videos as well as its patterns of recommendations. He discovered that whether you started with a pro-Clinton or pro-Trump video on YouTube, you were many times more likely to end up with a pro-Trump video recommended.
Combine this finding with other research showing that during the 2016 campaign, fake news, which tends toward the outrageous, included much more pro-Trump than pro-Clinton content, and YouTube’s tendency toward the incendiary seems evident.
YouTube has recently come under fire for recommending videos promoting the conspiracy theory that the outspoken survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., are “crisis actors” masquerading as victims.
What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look “behind the curtain,” to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.
This state of affairs is unacceptable but not inevitable. There is no reason to let a company make so much money while potentially helping to radicalize billions of people, reaping the financial benefits while asking society to bear so many of the costs.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The reputation age.

I would like to point to this brief essay by Italian philosopher Gloria Origgi, which offers, after its beginning paragraphs (below), several examples of paradoxes of our information age.
There is an underappreciated paradox of knowledge that plays a pivotal role in our advanced hyper-connected liberal democracies: the greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced.
We are experiencing a fundamental paradigm shift in our relationship to knowledge. From the ‘information age’, we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others. Seen in this light, reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Think you’re not a competitor? Think again.

From Raghabendra et al.:
We report a series of experimental studies that investigate the influence of a competition on noncompetitors who do not participate in it but are aware of it. Our work is highly relevant across many domains of social life where competitions are prevalent, as it is typical in a competition that the competitors are far outnumbered by these noncompetitors. In our field experiment involving pay-what-you-want entrance at a German zoo (n = 22,886) [with rewards for the top donors], customers who were aware of a competition over entrance payments, but did not participate in it, paid more than customers who were unaware of the competition. Further experiments provide confirmatory and process evidence for this contagion effect, showing that it is driven by heightened social comparison motivation due to mere awareness of the competition. Moreover, we find evidence that the reward level for the competitors could moderate the contagion effect on the noncompetitors. Even if an individual does not participate in a competition, their behavior can still be influenced by it, and this influence can change with the characteristics of the competition in an intriguing way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Brain coupling during holding hands correlates with pain reduction

From Goldstein et al.:
The mechanisms underlying analgesia related to social touch are not clear. While recent research highlights the role of the empathy of the observer to pain relief in the target, the contribution of social interaction to analgesia is unknown. The current study examines brain-to-brain coupling during pain with interpersonal touch and tests the involvement of interbrain synchrony in pain alleviation. Romantic partners were assigned the roles of target (pain receiver) and observer (pain observer) under pain–no-pain and touch–no-touch conditions concurrent with EEG recording. Brain-to-brain coupling in alpha–mu band (8–12 Hz) was estimated by a three-step multilevel analysis procedure based on running window circular correlation coefficient and post hoc power of the findings was calculated using simulations. Our findings indicate that hand-holding during pain administration increases brain-to-brain coupling in a network that mainly involves the central regions of the pain target and the right hemisphere of the pain observer. Moreover, brain-to-brain coupling in this network was found to correlate with analgesia magnitude and observer’s empathic accuracy. These findings indicate that brain-to-brain coupling may be involved in touch-related analgesia.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Being what we think we are.

Gretchen Reynolds points to an interesting article in Health Psychology by Zahrt and Crum. Following up on an earlier article in which
Crum and her co-author studied 84 female hotel-room attendants, who told the researchers that they felt they completed little or no daily exercise, although their work consisted mostly of physical labor. Crum and her colleague explained to half of them that, in fact, they were meeting or exceeding national recommendations for 30 minutes of daily exercise; a month later, when the researchers checked back, the women said they believed they were getting more exercise than before. They had lost weight and body fat and developed lower blood pressure. But in fact, their daily exertions were the same.
Their new study examined information from 61,141 participants who answered questions about whether they felt they were getting more, less or about the same amount of exercise as most people their age.
They found a strong correlation between people’s dying early and their believing that they were relatively inactive, even if their accelerometer data indicated that they were getting as much exercise as others their age in this group. Risk of early death was up to 71 percent higher than for the group that, correctly or not, felt confident that they exercised more than their peers. This correlation held true when the researchers controlled for chronic diseases, socioeconomic status, smoking and other factors.
Another article, by Paula Span, reports work by Levy et al. extending studies that have shown that people with more positive self-perception of aging actually live longer by an average of 7.5 years. The more recent study shows that implicit interventions can work subliminally to strengthen older people’s positive age stereotypes. That leads, in turn, to stronger physical functioning. The effects were still evident three weeks after the intervention ended. Here is the abstract from Levy et al.:
Negative age stereotypes that older individuals assimilate from their culture predict detrimental outcomes, including worse physical function. We examined, for the first time, whether positive age stereotypes, presented subliminally across multiple sessions in the community, would lead to improved outcomes. Each of 100 older individuals (age = 61–99 years, M = 81) was randomly assigned to an implicit-positive-age-stereotype-intervention group, an explicit-positive-age-stereotype-intervention group, a combined implicit- and explicit-positive-age-stereotype-intervention group, or a control group. Interventions occurred at four 1-week intervals. The implicit intervention strengthened positive age stereotypes, which strengthened positive self-perceptions of aging, which, in turn, improved physical function. The improvement in these outcomes continued for 3 weeks after the last intervention session. Further, negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging were weakened. For all outcomes, the implicit intervention’s impact was greater than the explicit intervention’s impact. The physical-function effect of the implicit intervention surpassed a previous study’s 6-month-exercise-intervention’s effect with participants of similar ages. The current study’s findings demonstrate the potential of directing implicit processes toward physical-function enhancement over time.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Rationalizing undesired change as soon as it takes effect.

Lauren does interesting work illustrating how our psychological immune system acts to rationalize and make us feel better about changes we don’t like. This is part of why public revulsion at Trump’s outrageous behaviors is more muted that one might have expected. Here is the abstract:
People will often rationalize the status quo, reconstruing it in an exaggeratedly positive light. They will even rationalize the status quo they anticipate, emphasizing the upsides and minimizing the downsides of sociopolitical realities they expect to take effect. Drawing on recent findings on the psychological triggers of rationalization, I present results from three field studies, one of which was preregistered, testing the hypothesis that an anticipated reality becoming current triggers an observable boost in people’s rationalizations. San Franciscans rationalized a ban on plastic water bottles, Ontarians rationalized a targeted smoking ban, and Americans rationalized the presidency of Donald Trump, more in the days immediately after these realities became current compared with the days immediately before. Additional findings show evidence for a mechanism underlying these behaviors and rule out alternative accounts. These findings carry implications for scholarship on rationalization, for understanding protest behavior, and for policymakers.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dying for the group - a theory of extreme self-sacrifice

I'm on Behavioral and Brain Sciences' mailing list of potential commentators on its forthcoming articles, and now pass on the abstract of a forthcoming article by Harvey Whitehouse, on what might be the motivation behind suicide terrorist attacks:
Whether upheld as heroic or reviled as terrorism, throughout history people have been willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their groups. Why? Previous theories of extreme self-sacrifice have highlighted a range of seemingly disparate factors such as collective identity, outgroup hostility, and kin psychology. This paper attempts to integrate many of these factors into a single overarching theory based on several decades of collaborative research with a range of special populations, from tribes in Papua New Guinea to Libyan insurgents, and from Muslim fundamentalists in Indonesia to Brazilian football hooligans. These studies suggest that extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by 'identity fusion', a visceral sense of oneness with the group resulting from intense collective experiences (e.g. painful rituals or the horrors of frontline combat) or from perceptions of shared biology. In ancient foraging societies, fusion would have enabled warlike bands to stand united despite strong temptations to scatter and flee. The fusion mechanism has often been exploited in cultural rituals, not only by tribal societies but also in specialized cells embedded in armies, cults, and terrorist organizations. With the rise of social complexity and the spread of states and empires, fusion has also been extended to much larger groups, including doctrinal religions, ethnicities, and ideological movements. Explaining extreme self-sacrifice is not only a scientific priority but also a practical challenge as we seek a collective response to suicide terrorism and other extreme expressions of outgroup hostility that continue to bedevil humanity today.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We project our own spatial bias onto others.

Graziano's group has done an experiment suggesting that our spatial bias in processing objects in the right visual field better than the left (or vice versa, in some people) is projected onto others when inferring their perceptions in a theory of mind task. This suggests that common underlying mechanisms are used when we process our own visual space and imagine someone else's processing of their space

Most people have an intrinsic spatial bias—many are better at processing objects to the left, whereas some are biased to the right. Here, we found that this subtle bias in one’s own awareness is mirrored in one’s ability to process what is likely to be in other people’s minds. If you are biased toward processing your own right side of space, then you may be faster at recognizing when someone else processes an object to his or her right side. One possible interpretation is that we process the space around us, and understand how others process the space around them, using at least partially shared mechanisms.
Many people show a left-right bias in visual processing. We measured spatial bias in neurotypical participants using a variant of the line bisection task. In the same participants, we measured performance in a social cognition task. This theory-of-mind task measured whether each participant had a processing-speed bias toward the right of, or left of, a cartoon agent about which the participant was thinking. Crucially, the cartoon was rotated such that what was left and right with respect to the cartoon was up and down with respect to the participant. Thus, a person’s own left-right bias could not align directly onto left and right with respect to the cartoon head. Performance on the two tasks was significantly correlated. People who had a natural bias toward processing their own left side of space were quicker to process how the cartoon might think about objects to the left side of its face, and likewise for a rightward bias. One possible interpretation of these results is that the act of processing one’s own personal space shares some of the same underlying mechanisms as the social cognitive act of reconstructing someone else’s processing of their space.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Slow Thought Manifesto

I am on Aeon’s mailing list to receive three essays from its archive each day, three more items to scan in a daily stream of emails from aggregators that together present several hundred ideas or articles as candidates for more thorough attention. It’s really too much - a skimming of the surface of things, like a water fly zig-zagging across a pond, preoccupying my limited attentional assets with brief and superficial chunks at the expense of lingering and thinking a bit more deeply about something. As my day progresses this process can accelerate to a debilitating pace.

So…. I woke up this morning recalling an article that I swished past yesterday with only a glance. It apparently had made a subliminal impression, and joined the unresolved issues visited during my nightly sleep.

It is a piece from Vincenzo Di Nicola, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, writing on the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, part of a broader cultural meme called the Slow Movement, that moves on to champion the slowness in human relations that is required to support a sense of belonging. I suggest you read the article, and here pass on his summary seven proclamations:
1. Slow Thought is marked by peripatetic Socratic walks - face to face dialogue.
2. Slow Thought creates its own time and place - Refusing the time constraints of 30-second media soundbites...not sequential in time, but structured by the slow logic of thought.
3. Slow Thought has no other object than itself - allowing us to live more fully in an atemporal present, freed from the burden of an imperfect past or the futile promise of a redemptive future.
4. Slow Thought is porous - non-categorical, improvisational
5. Slow Thought is playful - creating its own time, rules and sense of order, a discontinuity in our lives.
6. Slow Thought is a counter-method, rather than a method, for thinking as it relaxes, releases and liberates thought from its constraints and the trauma of tradition
7. Slow Thought is deliberate - not rushing thinking.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On social media lies spread faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.

Here is the link to the widely reported open access Science Magazine article by Vosoughi et al. showing that social media propagate false news more rapidly and deeply than true news.  (They also discuss their findings in a NYTimes 'Grey Matter' piece.) The Science summary and abstract:

Lies spread faster than the truth
There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.
We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise ~126,000 stories tweeted by ~3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.
From the NYTimes piece:
Surprisingly, Twitter users who spread false stories had, on average, significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were verified as genuine by Twitter significantly less often and had been on Twitter for significantly less time than were Twitter users who spread true stories. Falsehood diffused farther and faster despite these seeming shortcomings.
And despite concerns about the role of web robots in spreading false stories, we found that human behavior contributed more to the differential spread of truth and falsity than bots did. Using established bot-detection algorithms, we found that bots accelerated the spread of true stories at approximately the same rate as they accelerated the spread of false stories, implying that false stories spread more than true ones as a result of human activity.
Why would that be? One explanation is novelty. Perhaps the novelty of false stories attracts human attention and encourages sharing, conveying status on sharers who seem more “in the know.”
Our analysis seemed to bear out this hypothesis. Using accepted computerized methods for inferring emotional content from word use, we found that false stories inspired replies on Twitter expressing greater surprise than did true stories. The truth, on the other hand, inspired more joy and trust. Such emotions may shed light on what inspires people to share false stories.
The social media advertising market creates incentives for the spread of false stories because their wider diffusion makes them profitable. If platforms were to demote accounts or posts that disseminated false stories, using algorithms to weed out falsehoods, the financial incentives would presumably be reduced. The tricky question, of course, would be: Who gets to decide what is true and false?
Some notion of truth is central to the proper functioning of nearly every realm of human endeavor. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Critical comment on Pinker's "Enlightenment Now"

In this final post on Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now” I want to note several reviews that offer reservations about the book (and offer a few responses), passing over reviews that are largely laudatory (such as Winterer’s in the Washington Post and Bakewell's in the NYTimes Book review.

From David Brooks in an Op-Ed piece:
Pinker doesn’t spend much time on the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions or the decline of citizenship and neighborliness….today’s situation reminds us of the weakness of the sort of Cartesian rationalism Pinker champions and represents. Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered….Pinker’s rationalism is not the total cure.
From Douthat's Op-Ed NYTimes piece:
I’m most interested in the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.
That’s because those worlds’ inhabitants were a self-selected population who had either experienced something transformative or suffered something debilitating and been told by the official consensus, “We have no answers for you yet.” And so they ventured out in search of answers in an intensely experimental spirit — trying to see what people or prayers or situations recreated the initial religious experience, trying to discern what remedy or diet or program might actually make them feel, not just alive, but well.
From Szalai in “Books of The Times”:
There’s a noble kernel to Pinker’s project. He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.
...has little patience for individual tragedy; it’s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”
But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang froid — that makes “Enlightenment Now” such a profoundly maddening book.
Part of the problem is that Pinker succumbs to a version of the magical thinking he otherwise rails against. For all his intermittent disclaimers about how past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, he keeps slipping into messianic anticipation. “Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces or mystical arcs of justice,” he writes, “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.”
A common thread in the reservations stated by reviewers is that reason, and some sort of social order based on rational humanism, is not enough, is not the cure. It doesn’t seem to offer the rich emotional social bondings of religion and tribalism that make groups of people cohere.  This is more a tactical and strategic point than a challenge to rationality and a scientific world view, which can frequently provide a solid reason that irrationality seems to be so useful,  why the effectiveness of apparently irrational cults noted by Douthat can have a very rational basis. Almost any belief shared as evidence of tribal loyalty energizes our evolved empathetic social cognition. There is a rational basis for believing the world is flat if that belief is required as evidence of tribal loyalty. Or, the rationalist might explain the social cohesion whose loss is lamented by Brooks  as an evolved and sometimes useful mass placebo effect, with religion or tribal loyalty promoting unity because people believe it will.  Social cohesion, the "Us" that is the collective form of our individual "I's" is no less an illusion than our experience of having an individual "I."  Our rational cognitive neuroscientific minds inform us that both illusions are useful ones, made possible by the evolved circuitry of distinctive areas of our social brains.

The reviewers seem not to note what I think is Pinker’s effective response in Chapter 23 of his book:
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Pinker on humanism and human flourishing.

These clips from the last chapter (chapter 23) of Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" conclude my passing on of some of the ideas from the book. Please read through to his final summary, which is very powerful. In a subsequent post, I want to comment on positive and critical reviews the book has received.
Though humanism is the moral code that people will converge upon when they are rational, culturally diverse, and need to get along, it is by no means a vapid or saccharine lowest common denominator. The idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing clashes with two perennially seductive alternatives. The first is theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife. The second is romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation. Though romantic heroism was first articulated in the 19th century, it may be found in a family of newly influential movements, including authoritarian populism, neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and the alt-right. Many intellectuals who don’t sign on to these alternatives to humanism nonetheless believe they capture a vital truth about our psychology: that people have a need for theistic, spiritual, heroic, or tribal beliefs. Humanism may not be wrong, they say, but it goes against human nature. No society based on humanistic principles can long endure, let alone a global order based on them.
….let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well. It’s particularly wrongheaded for the reactionary right to use frantic warnings about an Islamist “war” against the West (with a death toll in the hundreds) as a reason to return to an international order in which the West repeatedly fought wars against itself (with death tolls in the tens of millions). After 1945 the world’s leaders said, “Well, let’s not do that again,” and began to downplay nationalism in favor of universal human rights, international laws, and transnational organizations. The result, as we saw in chapter 11, has been seventy years of peace and prosperity in Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
As for the lamentation among editorialists that the Enlightenment is a “brief interlude,” that epitaph is likelier to mark the resting place of neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and related backlashes of the early 21st century. The European elections and self-destructive flailing of the Trump administration in 2017 suggest that the world may have reached Peak Populism, and as we saw in chapter 20, the movement is on a demographic road to nowhere. Headlines notwithstanding, the numbers show that democracy (chapter 14) and liberal values (chapter 15) are riding a long-term escalator that is unlikely to go into reverse overnight. The advantages of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation cannot be denied for long in a world in which the flow of people and ideas is unstoppable.
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.
Still, the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness. I have made my own best case for progress and the ideals that made it possible, and have dropped hints on how journalists, intellectuals, and other thoughtful people (including the readers of this book) might avoid contributing to the widespread heedlessness of the gifts of the Enlightenment.
Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.
Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? The case for Enlightenment Now is not just a matter of debunking fallacies or disseminating data. It may be cast as a stirring narrative, and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.
We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.
Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.
We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.
And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Pinker on reason, and our presumed post-truth era

The last section, part III, of Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" is titled Reason, Science, and Humanism. Here I pass on a few clips from Chapter 21, "Reason," in which our presumed "post-truth era" is discussed. A further installment in this series is here.
In a revolutionary analysis of reason in the public sphere, the legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures, each of which embraces a creed on what makes for a good life and how society should run its affairs. These creeds tend to vary along two dimensions. One contrasts a right-wing comfort with natural hierarchy with a left-wing preference for forced egalitarianism…
Kahan notes that people’s tendency to treat their beliefs as oaths of allegiance rather than disinterested appraisals is, in one sense, rational. To express the wrong opinion on a politicized issue can make one an oddball at best—someone who “doesn’t get it”—and a traitor at worst…Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality).
Intellectual and political polarization feed each other. It’s harder to be a conservative intellectual when American conservative politics has become steadily more know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. On the other side, the capture of the left by identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors creates an opening for loudmouths who brag of “telling it like it is.” A challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.
Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself. As I mentioned, many commentators are confused about it. The discovery of cognitive and emotional biases does not mean that “humans are irrational” and so there’s no point in trying to make our deliberations more rational. If humans were incapable of rationality, we could never have discovered the ways in which they were irrational, because we would have no benchmark of rationality against which to assess human judgment, and no way to carry out the assessment. Humans may be vulnerable to bias and error, but clearly not all of us all the time, or no one would ever be entitled to say that humans are vulnerable to bias and error. The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.
For the same reason, editorialists should retire the new cliché that we are in a “post-truth era” unless they can keep up a tone of scathing irony. The term is corrosive, because it implies that we should resign ourselves to propaganda and lies and just fight back with more of our own. We are not in a post-truth era. Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong. The same decade that has seen the rise of pants-on-fire Trump and his reality-challenged followers has also seen the rise of a new ethic of fact-checking.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Future of Progress - return to the Middle Ages, or continuing upward curve?

Continuing the series of posts on Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now", I want to pass on clips from the last chapter (Chapter 20) of part II of the book, dealing with progress, in which he considers the future of progress. The next installment in this series, on part III, is here.
The deeper question is whether the rise of populist movements, whatever damage they do in the short term, represents the shape of things to come—whether, as a recent Boston Globe editorial lamented/gloated, “The Enlightenment had a good run.” Do the events around 2016 really imply that the world is headed back to the Middle Ages? As with climate change skeptics who claim to be vindicated by a nippy morning, it’s easy to overinterpret recent events.
...supporters of authoritarian populism are the losers not so much of economic competition as cultural competition. Voters who are male, religious, less educated, and in the ethnic majority “feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change that they do not share. . . . The silent revolution launched in the 1970s seems to have spawned a resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today.”
Pinker notes an article by the statistician Nate Silver:
… the article’s headline: “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump.”….. A more interesting explanation is that education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to do, instills a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.
Among the exit poll questions that probed general attitudes, the most consistent predictor of Trump support was pessimism.
How will the tension play out between the liberal, cosmopolitan, enlightenment humanism that has been sweeping the world for decades and the regressive, authoritarian, tribal populism pushing back? The major long-term forces that have carried liberalism along—mobility, connectivity, education, urbanization—are not likely to go into reverse, and neither is the pressure for equality from women and ethnic minorities.
Populism is an old man’s movement. As figure 20-1 shows, support for all three of its recrudescences—Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties—falls off dramatically with year of birth…people carry their emancipative values with them as they age rather than sliding into illiberalism. And a recent analysis of 20th-century American voters by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman has shown that Americans do not consistently vote for more conservative presidents as they age. Their voting preferences are shaped by their cumulative experience of the popularity of presidents over their life spans, with a peak of influence in the 14–24-year-old window. The young voters who reject populism today are unlikely to embrace it tomorrow.
I believe that the media and intelligentsia were complicit in populists’ depiction of modern Western nations as so unjust and dysfunctional that nothing short of a radical lurch could improve them….Even moderate editorialists in mainstream newspapers commonly depict the country as a hellhole of racism, inequality, terrorism, social pathology, and failing institutions.
We don’t have a catchy name for a constructive agenda that reconciles long-term gains with short-term setbacks, historical currents with human agency. “Optimism” is not quite right, because a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than the belief that things will always get worse. Kelly offers “protopia,” the pro- from progress and process. Others have suggested “pessimistic hopefulness,” “opti-realism,” and “radical incrementalism.” My favorite comes from Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.”

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Pinker on progress

This post is my third installment of summarizing or passing on bits of Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now”. The previous installments dealt with Pinker’s description of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment and with the first chapter in Part II on progress, Chapter 4, “Progressophobia,” dealing with the distain for the idea of progress that pervades intellectual circles. This post continues with Chapters 5 through 19, which present data demonstrating process in all areas of human experience and flourishing. Chapter 5, “Life,” documents aspects of the amazing rise in human life expectancy…
…in the mid-18th century, life expectancy in Europe and the Americas was around 35, where it had been parked for the 225 previous years for which we have data. Starting in the 19th century it began to rise and is now 75-80 in western countries, 70 averaged over the world.
Chapter 6 is on health and the decline in death from diseases as science and medicine discovered their causes. Chapter 7 on sustenance give data on the decreases in famine and hunger made possible by the agricultural revolution. Chapter 8, on Wealth, notes:
…since the industrial revolution was in place in 1820 gross world product increased 100-fold, and 200-fold since 17th century start of the enlightenment. Application of science to improving material life (steam engine, electricity, etc.) By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. …. Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.
Chapter 9, on inequality, challenged several of my assumptions, noting the confusion of inequality with poverty:
...when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too. inequality itself is not morally objectionable, what is objectionable is poverty
…If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. In comparisons of well-being across countries, it pales in importance next to overall wealth. An increase in inequality is not necessarily bad: as societies escape from universal poverty, they are bound to become more unequal, and the uneven surge may be repeated when a society discovers new sources of wealth. Nor is a decrease in inequality always good: the most effective levelers of economic disparities are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions, and state collapse. For all that, the long-term trend in history since the Enlightenment is for everyone’s fortunes to rise. In addition to generating massive amounts of wealth, modern societies have devoted an increasing proportion of that wealth to benefiting the less well-off.
As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved, often because their members rise into the upper classes. The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.
From Chapter 10 “The Environment”:
Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks the means to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic, and humanistic environmentalism can work. As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species. As people get richer and better educated, they care more about the environment, figure out ways to protect it, and are better able to pay the costs. Many parts of the environment are rebounding, emboldening us to deal with the admittedly severe problems that remain.
First among them is the emission of greenhouse gases and the threat they pose of dangerous climate change. People sometimes ask me whether I think that humanity will rise to the challenge or whether we will sit back and let disaster unfold. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll rise to the challenge, but it’s vital to understand the nature of this optimism. The economist Paul Romer distinguishes between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. We cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology.
Chapter 11, on Peace, gives data on the decline in the number of major wars between nations.
In fact, war may be just another obstacle an enlightened species learns to overcome, like pestilence, hunger, and poverty. Though conquest may be tempting over the short term, it’s ultimately better to figure out how to get what you want without the costs of destructive conflict and the inherent hazards of living by the sword, namely that if you are a menace to others you have given them an incentive to destroy you first. Over the long run, a world in which all parties refrain from war is better for everyone. Inventions such as trade, democracy, economic development, peacekeeping forces, and international law and norms are tools that help build that world.
Chapter 12 on Safety discusses decreases in the risk of death from almost everything…homicides, crime, car accidents, being pedestrian, flying, etc.
Like other forms of progress, the ascent of safety was led by some heroes, but it was also advanced by a motley of actors who pushed in the same direction inch by inch: grassroots activists, paternalistic legislators, and an unsung cadre of inventors, engineers, policy wonks, and number-crunchers. Though we sometimes chafe at the false alarms and the nanny-state intrusions, we get to enjoy the blessings of technology without the threats to life and limb.
Chapter 12 on Terrorism notes that death rates from terrorism remain unchanged over the past 45 years, despite up and down blips, and that the number of death from terrorism is very small compared with homicides and vehicular and other accidents.
Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear.21 It happened to the anarchist movements at the turn of the20th century (after many bombings and assassinations), it happened to the Marxist and secessionist groups in the second half of the 20th century, and it will almost certainly happen to ISIS in the 21st. We may never drive the already low numbers of terrorist casualties to zero, but we can remember that terror about terrorism is a sign not of how dangerous our society has become, but of how safe.
Chapter 14 on Democracy has some interesting points:
Why has the tide of democratization repeatedly exceeded expectations? The various backslidings, reversals, and black holes for democracy have led to theories which posit onerous prerequisites and an agonizing ordeal of democratization. (This serves as a convenient pretext for dictators to insist that their countries are not ready for it, like the revolutionary leader in Woody Allen’s Bananas who upon taking power announces, “These people are peasants. They are too ignorant to vote.”) The awe is reinforced by a civics-class idealization of democracy in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preference.
By that standard, the number of democracies in the world is zero in the past, zero in the present, and almost certainly zero in the future. Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of their representatives.
….autocrats can learn to use elections to their advantage. The latest fashion in dictatorship has been called the competitive, electoral, kleptocratic, statist, or patronal authoritarian regime.22 (Putin’s Russia is the prototype.)
If neither voters nor elected leaders can be counted on to uphold the ideals of democracy, why should this form of government work so not-badly—the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, as Churchill famously put it? In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed.
The political scientist John Mueller broadens the idea from a binary Judgment Day to continuous day-to-day feedback. Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.”
I skip over Chapters 15, 16, and 17 on increases in equal rights, knowledge, and quality of life to a quote from Chapter 18 on happiness, in which Pinker gives data contradicting the common assumption that there is a loneliness epidemic :
Modern life.. has not crushed our minds and bodies, turned us into atomized machines suffering from toxic levels of emptiness and isolation, or set us drifting apart without human contact or emotion. How did this hysterical misconception arise? Partly it came out of the social critic’s standard formula for sowing panic: Here’s an anecdote, therefore it’s a trend, therefore it’s a crisis. But partly it came from genuine changes in how people interact. People see each other less in traditional venues like clubs, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, and dinner parties, and more in informal gatherings and via digital media. They confide in fewer distant cousins but in more co-workers. They are less likely to have a large number of friends but also less likely to want a large number of friends.51 But just because social life looks different today from the way it looked in the 1950s, it does not mean that humans, that quintessentially social species, have become any less social.
Chapter 19 deals with existential threats such as nuclear war, the imagined dangers of artificial intelligence, etc.
…risk assessments fall apart when they deal with highly improbable events in complex systems….The math is of little help in calibrating the risk, because the scattershot data along the tail of the distribution generally misbehave, deviating from a smooth curve and making estimation impossible. All we know is that very bad things can happen.
That takes us back to subjective readouts, which tend to be inflated by the Availability and Negativity biases and by the gravitas market (chapter 4). 8 Those who sow fear about a dreadful prophecy may be seen as serious and responsible, while those who are measured are seen as complacent and naïve. Despair springs eternal. At least since the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, seers have warned their contemporaries about an imminent doomsday. Forecasts of End Times.
In a subsequent post I will move on to Chapter 20 “The Future of Progress,” and then a final post on the third section of the book, on Reason, Science, and Humanism.

Monday, March 05, 2018


In this post I continue to pass on brief clips from Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" that I found most fascinating. The following is from Part II of the book (Progress) Chapter 4, "Progressophobia" Pinker discusses some of our most powerful cognitive biases, the availability heuristic and negativity:
Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class.
In History of the Idea of Progress, the sociologist Robert Nisbet agreed: “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”
The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world.
Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. How many people are victims of violence as a proportion of the number of people alive? How many are sick, how many starving, how many poor, how many oppressed, how many illiterate, how many unhappy? And are those numbers going up or down?
The incredulous reaction to Better Angels convinced me that it isn’t just the Availability heuristic that makes people fatalistic about progress. Nor can the media’s fondness for bad news be blamed entirely on a cynical chase for eyeballs and clicks. No, the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper. The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.” The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling?...
The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)
In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome: Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.
…the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.
Information about human progress, though absent from major news outlets and intellectual forums, is easy enough to find. The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder. (Rosling learned that not even swallowing a sword during a 2007 TED talk was enough to get the world’s attention.) The case has been made in beautifully written books, some by Nobel laureates, which flaunt the news in their titles—Progress, The Progress Paradox, Infinite Progress, The Infinite Resource……none was awarded with a major prize, but over the period in which they appeared, Pulitzers in nonfiction were given to four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer, two on racism, and one on extinction.
The third installment of this series is here.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Two very different worlds to live in.

On the same day that I read yet another depressing article in the New York Times - Thomas Edsall on the increasing polarization and demonization in our society:
Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty. The building strength of partisan antipathy — “negative partisanship” — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters.
I get an email from the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center that feels like a reality warp to a different world, as they offer a “March 2018 Happiness Calendar” with daily homilies on various topics: mindfulness, kindness, gratitude, relaxation, sociality, resilience, etc.

If only we could salt the first of these realities with a bit of the second....

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" - a must read book

I recommend Pinker's new book to all MindBlog readers as an refreshing antidote to the drumbeat of popular press articles bemoaning our world's potential return to pre-enlightenment cultures where religious orthodoxy and tribal mentalities prevail. Pinker is a brilliant polymath, the depth of his analysis and the documentation he has has assembled is amazing.

Today I'm going to pass on a few chunks from my abstracting of Part I of the book, titled 'The Enlightenment.' Subsequent MindBlog posts will pass on bits of Part II (Progress) and Part III (Reason, Science, and Humanism).
Chapter 1 Dare to Understand
If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.
To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignorance and superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and how the methods of science—skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing—are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge. That knowledge includes an understanding of ourselves. The need for a “science of man” was a theme that tied together Enlightenment thinkers who disagreed about much else,..Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage…They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.
Chapter 2 Entro, Evo, Info
Entropy, evolution, information. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence. The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose.
Evolution left us with another burden: our cognitive, emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one. To appreciate this burden, one doesn’t have to believe that we are cavemen out of time, only that evolution, with its speed limit measured in generations, could not possibly have adapted our brains to modern technology and institutions. Humans today rely on cognitive faculties that worked well enough in traditional societies, but which we now see are infested with bugs.
But we’re not all bad. Human cognition comes with two features that give it the means to transcend its limitations. The first is abstraction. People can co-opt their concept of an object at a place and use it to conceptualize an entity in a circumstance,..They can do this not just with the elements of thought but with more complex assemblies, allowing them to think in metaphors and analogies: heat is a fluid, a message is a container, a society is a family, obligations are bonds.
The second stepladder of cognition is its combinatorial, recursive power. The mind can entertain an explosive variety of ideas by assembling basic concepts like thing, place, path, actor, cause, and goal into propositions.
So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. major brainchildren of the Enlightenment.
Chapter 3 Counter-Enlightenments
Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
….the disdain for reason, science, humanism, and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic circles…No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline...It sounds mad, but in the 21st century those counter-Enlightenment ideals continue to be found across a surprising range of elite cultural and intellectual movements. The notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering is considered crass, naïve, wimpy, square.
Pinker describes some of the popular alternatives to reason, science, humanism, and progress, the most obvious being religious faith, and also the counter-enlightenment idea that
...people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up.
Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.
One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology…Another form of declines worries about the opposite problem - not that modernity has made life too harsh and dangerous, but that it has made it too pleasant and safe.
But it’s the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw…Since any defense of reason, science, and humanism would count for nothing if, two hundred and fifty years after the Enlightenment, we’re no better off than our ancestors in the Dark Ages, an appraisal of human progress is where the case must begin.
I will resume my abstracting in a subsequent post, continuing with Part II, Chapter 4 "Progressophobia'