Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

Denying the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us

March 13, 2017

“Denying the Grave:  Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us” is the third of three books of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book are a psychiatrist, Jack Gorman, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public health specialist.  They probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves.  Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false, but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous.

The Gormans argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive.  They dedicate many pages to the confirmation bias, which they claim has a physiological component.  This research suggests that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.  They observe,”It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong.”

The Gormans do not just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong;  they want to correct them.  Providing people with accurate information does not seem to help; people simply discount it.  They write that “the challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

March 12, 2017

“The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone” is  the second of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

The authors of this book, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach also believe that sociability is the key  to how the human mind functions, or, more accurately, malfunctions.  In a study conducted on Yale University, graduate students were ask to rate their understanding of everyday devices to include toilets, zippers, and cinder blocks.  Then they were asked to write detailed step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again.  Doing this revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped.

Sloan and Fernbach call this the “illusion of explanatory depth” and find this effect just about everywhere.  They say that what allows us to press in this belief is other people.  This is something we are very good at.  We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hang together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history.  They argue that we collaborate so well that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.  They argue that this borderlessness is crucial to what we consider progress.  “As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance;  If everyone insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amount to much.  When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.”

Where this gets us into trouble, according to Sloan and Fernbach, is in the political domain.  “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates,  and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.”

Sloan and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.  Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also to locate Crimea on a map.  The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

The Enigma of Reason

March 11, 2017

“The Enigma of Reason”  by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber is the first of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think:  Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”

Ms. Kolbert notes hat since research in the nineteen-seventies revealed that we humans can’t think straight and that reasonable—seeming people are often totally irrational, the question remains:  How did we come to be this way.  “The Enigma of Reason” is the first book to be discussed that attempts to address this question.  The argument of Mercier and Sperber is that our biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate.  Cooperation is difficult to establish and also difficult to sustain.  They argue that reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; instead it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in cooperative groups.

Mercier and Sperber write “Reason is an adaptation to the hyper social niche humans have evolved for themselves.”  Habits of mind that seem to be weird or goofy or just plain dumb from and intellectual point of view prove shrewd when seen from an “interactionist” perspective.

They use confirmation bias to further their argument.  This is the tendency we have to embrace information that supports our forms of faulty thinking.  “Confirmation bias” is the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments.  One of the most famous was conducted at Stanford.  Researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions on capital punishment.  Half of these students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime;  the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

These students were asked to respond to two studies, which the students did not know had been made up.  One of these studies was pro and the other was anti and presented what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics.  The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence  highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing.  The students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse.  At the end of the study, the students were again asked about their views.  The only difference was that this time the students were more in favor of their original views than they had been originally.

To further their point Mercier and Sperber suggest what would happen to a mouse that thinks as we do.  If such a mouse were bent on confirming its belief that no cats were around, he would soon be dinner.  To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or under appreciated threats, it’s a trait that should have been selected against.  The fact that we both have survived, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive functions, and they maintain that that function is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Serber prefer the term “myside bias” to “confirmation bias.”  They point out that we humans are not randomly credulous.  Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses.  In an experiment illustrating this post by Mercier and some European colleagues participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems.  Then they were asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them.  Only fifteen% changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant who had come to a different conclusion.  However, the responses presented to them as some else’s  were actually their own and vice versa.  Only about half the participants realized what was going one,  Among the remaining half, suddenly people became much more critical.  Almost 60% rejected the responses they’d earlier been satisfied with.

Sick Memory

November 5, 2016

The title of this post is the antithesis of the title of this blog.  There is a growing epidemic of sick memories.  No memory is highly preferable to sick memory.  There is an article titled “Trolls for Trump” by Andrew Marantz in the October 31, 2016 issue of the “New Yorker.”  The subtitle of the article is “How the alt-right spreads fringe ideas to the mainstream.”  The article details how this works and how dangerous it is.  Take Donald Trump and multiple him hundreds of thousands of times, perhaps even millions of times.
They can be found on the internet, the radio, and cable.  Unfortunately they affect legitimate news media.

Their content is based solely on beliefs, many of which are racist, misogynist, and move into facism, although not labeled as such.  There is virtually no evidence although some might be fabricated.  But rarely are there attempts to fabricate evidence.  As it all hinges on beliefs, and the more absolute, the more strongly expressed, the better.  They condemn what they call political correctness, which in other quarters is regarded as common decency.

They deny any evidence that contradicts their beliefs, much as Trump denies direct evidence that he did and said certain things.  Imaginary conspiracies rage that must be thwarted.  When frustrated or stymied, then the system is rigged, just at Trump has already condemned the election.  It is useful to note that Trump declared that the Republican nomination process was rigged, but he won.  So one might conclude that it was rigged in his favor.

There is no way to argue with these people or to debunk what they say.  Evidence is irrelevant in the alternative universe they have created.

Let me remind you how memory works.  Memory is a system for time travel.  We use it to consult the past to decide upon courses of action for the future.  We never have direct access to reality.  What we perceive has already happened and is stored in intermediate memory stages.  From this information we construct models of reality, which we use to guide our behavior.  As we learn we refine our models of the external world.  This is based on experience derived from external data.  In a way we are all scientists developing our models of the world based on our personal experience and what we find in transactive memory, which is information derived from our fellow humans and technology.

This lunatic fringe’s memories are sick because they just construct an artificial reality that is never checked against or modified by information from other sources.  The only thing of interest is more stuff that supports their beliefs.  There is no role for critical thinking and logic.  Hence these are sick memories, and these sick memories threaten our society and the progress of all societies.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on the Universal Basic Income (UBI)

September 3, 2016

A previous post dealt with the topic of a Universal Basic Income (enter “Universal Basic Income” into the healthy memory search block).  Articles in the June 20, 2016 New Yorker by James Surowiecki and by Hal Hodson in the Features Section of the June 25 2016 New Scientist  titled “What Happens if we pay everyone just to live”  provide the motivation for this current post.   Surowiecki is the regular “New Yorker” correspondent for economics, business, and finance.  He has also written a book that Healthymemory would highly recommend, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  His article in the New Yorker is titled “Free Money.”

Both articles describe an unusual experiment in the Canadian province of Manitoba in mid-nineteen seventies.  The town of Dauphin sent checks to thousands of residents every month to guarantee that all residents received a basic income.  The title of this project was Mincome.  The goal of the project was to see what happened.  Did people stop working?  Did poor people spend foolishly and stay in poverty?  A Conservative government  ended  the project in 1979 and buried Mincome.

Many years later an economist at the University of Manitoba, Evelyn Forget, dug up the numbers on the project.  She found that life in Dauphin improved markedly.  More teenagers stayed in school.  Hospitalization rates fell.  Work rates had barely dropped at all.  The program worked about as well as anyone could have hoped.  The earlier healthy memory blog post on this topic found that similar results were found for 20 villages in India.

The Hodson article notes that UBI has long history.  Thomas Paine, a US Founding Father, believed that natural resources were a common heritage and that landowners sitting on them should be taxed and their income redistributed. This idea of a UBI returned to the fore in the sixties and is now popular again among economists and policy folks.  According to Hodson the idea has been graining adherents across the  political spectrum.  In the UK proponents include the left-wing Green party and a right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute.  In Canada, testing the approach forms part of the policy platform of the Liberal Party, which was elected to power last year.  There are many versions of this idea, but one would provide every adult citizen in the U.S. a stipend, say $10K, with children receiving smaller amounts. This would increase a willingness to take risks in jobs and to invest in education.  There were small scale experiments with basic income guarantees in the seventies and they showed  young people with a basic income were more likely to stay in school.  In New Jersey the chances of students graduating from high school increased 25%.  The fear that a UBI produces lazy unmotivated workers does not appear to be true.  The examples of the many direct-cash-grant programs in the developing world suggest that, as Columbia economist Chris Boatman puts it, “the poor do not waste grants.”

In Alaska an annual dividend from state oil revenues is paid to citizens each year.  This amounted to $2012 per person in 2015.  Economist Scott Goldsmith at the University of Alaska points that the state is the only one in the US in which the income of the poorest 20$% grew faster than that of the top 20% between the 1980s and  2000.

Now experiments are afoot to test such effects more exactingly.  As many as 10,000 Finns will get a no-strings attached monthly income for two years.   The sum is designed to guarantee subsistence, covering housing, food, and services like water and electricity.  The point is to test whether a basic income gets more people working.  The government is interested in removing disincentives to joining the labor force.  The ideal is to encourage people to enter the labour market on their own terms.

A study of 1000 children by Kimberly Noble of Columbia University found a strong positive correlation between family income and brain development.   One theory is that families with a secure income can focus extra resources on their children.  “But with purely correlational data we can’t say which way the arrow is pointing,” says Noble.  To find out she is running an experiment in which 1000 low-income mothers across the US will receive a basic income for three years.  One group will receive a nominal $20 a month, the other $333.   Noble’s focus is on brain development, not economics. But in a pilot study in New York in which money was handed on trackable, prepaid debit cards found that of 1100 transactions most of the money went on groceries.  Just three happened at a liquor store.

A basic income would be costly.  Depending on how the program was structured, it would likely cost at least twelve to thirteen percent of the GDP.  Of course, GDP is another problem.  There have been many previous healthy memory blog posts, particularly around Labor Day, arguing that the GDP is the wrong measure of economic success.  Requiring constant growth in GDP will eventually destroy itself.  There are better metrics of the health of the economy.

Surowiecki concludes that at the moment the prospects of a UBI do not seem favorable, but that the most popular social-welfare programs in the US seemed utopian at first.  Healthy Memory would argue that increasing job insecurity along with the a need for increased education throughout the lifespan, a UBI is all but guaranteed for sometime in the future.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.