Tag 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 inceasing.

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.

COVID-19 (Average) vs Other Causes of Death (Actual) in the U.S. – Animated Data Graph

Source: Covid vs. US Daily Average Cause of Death, Robert Martin on 8 Apr 2020

For those still saying influenza is a much bigger killer than COVID-19 (SARS-COV-2), the numbers don’t support that argument, especially considering there are many deaths that strongly appear to be due to COVID-19 that are not reported as such because the deceased are not tested. The animation conveys the speed with which an exponentially increasing infection rate overtakes other, relatively linear rates of expansion.

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.

Can memes bypass rationality to manipulate you?

We’ve had a few discussions about what ‘memes’ are and how they work. We didn’t reach a consensus on whether they are true replicators in their own rights, as genes (or gene collectives) seem to be. Consider the following excerpt (author permission obtained) with the less rigorous working definition of a meme in mind: a unit of information with the capacity to shape perception and belief (or a  unit of ‘culture transmission’). Also, consider the conversations and readings we’ve had about metaphors and embodied cognition (particularly Lakoff and Johnson’s works and Edward’s many posts on the topic. Even in Facebook, there are people calling out manipulation by meme.

 

Memes can manipulate your perspective

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 religious brain and atheism

As much of the world settles into the spectacle and cozy embrace of culturally reinforced magical thinking, New Scientist has several interesting recent articles about the evolved intuitive nature of religious thinking as a cognitive by-product (of the value of assuming agency in environmental phenomena, for example) and delving into how atheism is and is not like religious thinking. I find the point interesting that religion and atheism (or any ism), as social constructs, cannot be studied and compared in the same ways that objectively real objects and phenomena can, but we can learn much from systematic approaches to investigating the underlying neurological functions and their probable evolutionary value.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631561-000-effortless-thinking-the-godshaped-hole-in-your-brain/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328562-000-the-god-issue-we-are-all-born-believers/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431212-800-faith-of-the-faithless-is-atheism-just-another-religion/

If you don’t subscribe, Albuquerque Public Libraries carry New Scientist.

Mass and activity of brain structures correlate with political perspectives

Brain imaging research indicates some aspects of individual political orientation correlate significantly with the mass and activity of particular brain structures including the right amygdala and the insula. This correlation may derive in part from genetics, but is also influenced by environment and behavior.

“there’s a critical nuance here. Schreiber thinks the current research suggests not only that having a particular brain influences your political views, but also that having a particular political view influences and changes your brain. The causal arrow seems likely to run in both directions—which would make sense in light of what we know about the plasticity of the brain. Simply by living our lives, we change our brains. Our political affiliations, and the lifestyles that go along with them, probably condition many such changes.”

Thanks to member, Edward, for recommending this article: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/02/brain-difference-democrats-republicans 

In a similar vein, Bob Altemeyer conducted and reported on some seminal social science research and theory on political dispositions. See http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/. Note the free book link on the left.

 

Politicians use ‘salient availability’ bias to manipulate constituents and journalists

https://www.wired.com/2017/02/cognitive-bias-president-trump-understands-better/ 

“When something is memorable, it tends to be the thing you think of first, and then it has an outsize influence on your understanding of the world. After the movie Jaws came out, a generation of people was afraid to swim in the sea—not because shark attacks were more likely but because all those movie viewers could more readily imagine them.”