Category Archives: rationality

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still increasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

How the Black Death Radically Changed the Course of History

link.medium.com/YRFzoB3Xr5

This article is relevant to our recent discussions and Zak Stein’s (see Edward’s recent post) suggestion that great destabilizing events open gaps in which new structures can supplant older, disintegrating systems–with the inherent risks and opportunities.

The Neural Basis of Human prosocial behavior

A new Frontiers in Science ebook here. The blurb:

With the rise of laboratory and field experimental economics, the famous prisoner’s dilemma, public good, dictator, ultimatum, and trust games have become the classical paradigms of studying prosocial behavior. Due to the increasing use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) with human subjects playing economic games, the neural basis of prosocial behavior has been uncovered by a large amount of neural imaging and stimulating research. A wide range of brain areas including, but not limited to the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, striatum and amygdale have been revealed highly correlated or causally related with prosocial behaviors.

A number of hypotheses such as empathy, altruism, reciprocity, inequality aversion, or guilt aversion preferences have been considered as motives promoting prosocial behavior. However, the neural bases of these different preferences have seldom been revealed and the mechanisms of how these preferences influence prosocial behavior have rarely been discussed. Moreover, since prosocial behavior may be due to the cooperative work of several brain areas (neural network), it is essential to integrate findings from difference disciplines including psychology, economics, neuroscience, and to nearly all the social and behavioral sciences.

The present Research Topic of Frontiers in Psychology aims to bring a collection of research revealing the neural basis of human prosocial behavior. Interdisciplinary research investigating brain areas influencing prosocial behaviors is highly encouraged. We believe sharing relevant brain imaging and stimulation findings can promote a better understanding of neural basis of prosocial behavior. 

Mental rigidity in both Parties

Another one of those studies comparing political identification. The study is about extreme attachment to a Party. What about those who strongly identify with humanity with high cognitive complexity and flexibility who don’t identify with a Party? Are their nuanced arguments that account for numerous factors and their interplay ‘extreme?’ Is the Green New Deal extreme? If a living wage extreme? Is corporations paying their fair share extreme? Is addressing the climate crisis extreme? Is transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy extreme? I think we all know the answer to those questions.

“They also found that self-described Independents displayed greater cognitive flexibility compared to both Democrats and Republicans. Other cognitive traits, such as originality or fluency of thought, were not related to heightened political partisanship. […] The aim of this research is not to draw false equivalences between different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.”

Divided brain, divided world

I was reminded of the video below, and this longer examination of the ideas therein. Here’s the blurb from the latter:

“Divided Brain, Divided World explores the significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. 

 
“Divided Brain, Divided World examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in author and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. It features a dialogue between McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics.

“This workshop led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.”
 

ai will never conquer humanity

From this piece located at the publications page of the International Computer Science Institute.   “Mathematical models help describe reality, but only by ignoring its inherent integrity.” Computers work on binary logic and the world is full of  ‘noise.’ Hence computers, and mathematical models for that matter, can only approximate reality by eliminating that noise.

“Can a bunch of bits represent reality exactly, in a way that can be controlled and predicted indefinitely? The answer is no, because nature is inherently chaotic, while a bunch of bits representing a program can never be so, by definition.”

Which leads us to ask: “Are our mathematical models just a desperate, failed attempt to de-noise an otherwise very confusing, extremely blurred reality?”

So yes, math and computers are quite useful as long as we keep the above in mind instead of assuming they reveal reality as it is. And as long as we also search for that noisy humanity in the spaces between binary logic, which will never be revealed by math or computers alone.

Gibbs on Haidt’s righteous mind

From Gibbs’ Moral Development and Reality:

“Haidt’s new synthesis leads to recognition of at least three serious limitations: descriptive inadequacy or negative skew; unwarranted exclusion or studied avoidance of prescriptive implications; and moral relativism” (33). He then goes into detail on those inadequacies. From the section on moral relativism:

“Haidt’s (2012) sentiment that liberals and conservatives should share meals and narratives and ‘get along’ is helpful, but missing is any call for rational dialogue or moral progress. Nor did Haidt appeal to ‘the right’ (consistency, reversibility, etc.), objective accuracy, or cognitive development. […] As noted, Haidt even likened moral judgments to diversely shaped babblings or tastes. […] Yet if ethical judgments ‘are nothing but the outflow’ of subjective affects, of esthetic feelings or sensory tastes, then ‘it would be as inappropriate to criticize ethical judgment as it would be to criticize gastronomic preferences.’ Given such analogies, what happens to moral objectivity? […]

“In the twenty-first century, the relativist tide has returned; we must swim against it as did Kohlberg and Piaget in their eras. Now, as then, we cannot afford the moral paralysis of a moral psychology that reduces development to enculturation or socialization. Fundamentally, we cannot afford a relativistic moral psychology whose functionalist evolutionary perspective encompasses pragmatic success, advantage, or utility, but not progress, consistency, or truth” (37).

News startups aim to improve public discourse

A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.

The evolutionary and present significance of reading

In her new book, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, author Maryanne Wolf explores how reading affects the brain and mind. What different effects result from consuming digital media rather than print media and long forms rather than tweets, posts, and other microcontent? In her excellent recent article, she says,

Will new readers develop the more time-demanding cognitive processes nurtured by print-based mediums as they absorb and acquire new cognitive capacities emphasized by digital media? For example, will the combination of reading on digital formats and daily immersion in a variety of digital experiences — from social media to virtual games — impede the formation of the slower cognitive processes, such as critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy, that are all part of deep reading?

Wolf first addressed the evolution of reading and its implications in her earlier book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. She summarizes her thesis in this interview (14 min video).

Stanislas Dehaene, an author whose work we’ve discussed, also investigated the brain circuits involved in reading. Hear him speak on the topic in this video (33 min).

AI-enabled software creates 3D face from single photo

I wrote on my blog about this development and more generally about the increasing ease with which AI tools can forge convincing media. Go see my creepy 3D face.