Posts Tagged ‘religious wars’

Daniel Kahneman and the Stupidity Pandemic

December 26, 2016

In case you haven’t noticed there is a stupidity pandemic.  It’s a pandemic because it rages throughout the world.  Perhaps the most conspicuous example are the religious wars.  These wars are several centuries out of date.  Terrorism is a religious war being largely fought within the Islamic faith with some terrorists groups targeting the west.  Then there is Brexit, a phenomenon that was not predicted by professional politicians.  In general there is lack of faith in what is called the “establishment” and in bodies of knowledge such as science.

In the United States there is the phenomenon of Donald Trump.  When Trump began his campaign it was regarded as a joke and was quite funny.  It is still a joke, but one that is no longer funny.  If every vote had counted in the United States, the Trump problem would not exist.  But an archaic and stupid institution called the electoral college elected Trump, therefore nullifying the will of the majority of US citizens.

So what has Nobel Lauerate Daniel Kahneman have to do with this?  His two process theory of human cognition provides a means of understanding this pandemic.  System 1 refers to our normal mode of cognition.  It is very fast and allows for fluent conversations and skilled performance.  It is the default mode of cognition.  System 2 is called reasoning and corresponds to what we colloquially call thinking.  System 2 requires attention and mental effort.  One of the jobs of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for errors.  However, this requires mental effort and thinking.

Experiments have been run where statements are presented to the research participant.  The brain is monitored.  When a statement conflicts with a participant’s individual beliefs, a signature is reported from the brain.  The question is whether this statement will be ignored, or whether the participant engages in deeper thought to reconsider this statement.  There is a cognitive cost here and the simplest reaction is to ignore the statement and regard it as a mistaken belief.

Trump’s  victory was a victory for System 1 processing.  System 1 appeals to fears, emotions, bigotry, and so forth.  Trump is a genius at connecting with and exploiting the System 1 processes of people.  Trump himself rarely uses System 2 processing.  He does not read books, does not think he needs to attend briefings because he knows everything already.  His gut, his System 1 processing, tells him what is true.  However, Trump does not care what is true.  It is whatever he believes at the moment, and this does change from moment to moment.  This is one of the reasons he is such an effective liar.  He does not care what is true.  It is whatever is expedient for the moment.  When confronted with his lies, he denies the truth.  His promise to make America great again was predicated on the lie that the United States is not regarded throughout the world as a great country.  Enemies dislike the politics of Americans, but nevertheless respect its greatness.

Totalitarian countries have exploited the big lie, and so does Trump.  See the healthy memory blog “Sick Memory.”  Lying has become a profitable industry.  Dana Milbank had an interesting column in the 21 December 2016 Washington Post title “Hoping that he didn’t really mean it.”  Milbank pointed out that many areas of the country that went for Trump will suffer deeply from cuts in government spending that will occur if Trump acts on his promises.  The title of Milbank’s article provides the explanation of how these voters reconcile their vote with the adverse effects that will affect them personally.
It is clear that these people did not employ System 2 processing when they voted.  There is justification for believing that these people rarely engaging in System 2 processing.  Like Trump, they go with their gut feelings.  Unfortunately, there is some question if such people will ever realize that they have screwed themselves.  Trump can continue to exploit their fears and bigotry to keep them in line.

© 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.

Equality and the Next Generation

October 11, 2016

Equality and the Next Generation are chapters 9 and 10, respectively, of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

The chapter Equality begins with the following quote from Charles Darwin:  “As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would teach each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extend to all men of all nations and races.”

Norbert writes, “The fact that a country is a democracy does not guarantee that it is a liberal democracy that gives individual rights to all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.  After winning the Second World War against the Nazis’ brutal form of racism, the Allied democracies showed how many problems still remained among themselves.  When General de Gaulle wanted French troops to lead the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944, American and British commanders accepted it on the condition that no black colonial forces were included, even though they made up two-thirds of the Free French forces.”

Norbert notes that racism has been a natural part of most people’s mindset since ancient times.  The hostility towards (and even enslavement of) other ethnic groups was a regular occurrence.  There is one long historical record of hatred agains peoples that were considered inferior.  Anti-semitic programs continue for centuries in Europe.  Jews were blamed for the plague, and were frequently slaughtered wholesale.  1492 was not only the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but when Spain emerged as a unified Christian country.  Its rulers expelled all Jews who refused to convert.  Shortly thereafter, Spanish Muslims were forced to choose between conversions and exile.  Conversion proved fruitless as a hundred years later those who did convert were expelled.

Europe was plagued by religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  The irony here is that these religions preached love, tolerance, forgiveness, and non-violence, yet fought vicious wars and committed atrocities in the names of their respective religions.

There were no religious wars in the United States so they had do make due with deadly riots against almost every ethnic and religious minority, including Catholics, Jews and Protestant sects, and Germans, Italian and Irish.  In the late nineteenth century there were more than 150 lynchings of African American per year.

Eventually more humanitarian attitudes began to take root and ethnic violence was reduced.  In the mid-nineteenth century deadly riots began to decline in Europe and lynchings in the United States begin to decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  With the exception of isolated case, they ended in the 1940s and 1950s.  Legal racism continued until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968.  Although racial discrimination continues in the United States, it is illegal.

One could argue that our genes predispose us to racism, although modern views of genetics would reject that view.  The opening quote from Charles Darwin provides a more progressive and positive view.    The nineteenth century Irish historian William E. H. Lecky suggested that the advance of civilization and education makes us expand the circle of those whose interest we take into consideration:  “At one time the benevolent affections embraced merely the family, soon the circle, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealing of man with the animal world.”

The ability to empathize and to consider oneself in the position of others is key to defeating racism.  Michal Sheerer talk about the principle of interchangeable perspectives.  To change position and put ourselves in someone else’s shows is a complex mental abstraction,  Empathy requires contemplation.  The first arguments for tolerance came from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, who wrote in 1689 that “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, outgo to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.  Norbert does not mention that these concepts have long been part of Buddhism.

Norbert does mention the Flynn Effect, but he does not mention how the Flynn’s concept of the Flynn Effect has changed.  Initially, Flynn was skeptical of IQ tests and argued that IQ increases across generations that required the renorming of the test were bogus.  However, subsequent research lead him to conclude that these increases were real.  Steven Pinker has talked about a “moral Flynn Effect,” where our increased ability to abstract from concrete particulars of our immediate experience makes it possible to take in the perspective of others.  Flynn and his brother tried to get their father to give up racial prejudices by using a thought-experiment.  They asked him, “What if you woke up one morning and discovered your skin had turned black?  Would that make you less of a human being?”  Their father answered:  “Now , that’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said.  Who ever hear of a man’s skin turning black overnight?’  Unfortunately, it is HM’s observation that the “moral Flynn Effect” is not as widespread as one might hope, and that too many are stuck in the thought process of Flynn’s father.

Norbert also covers the Global Gender Gap Index.  Globally, almost 96% of the gap in health outcomes between men and women has closed, and 95% of the gap in educational attainment.  But only 59% of the economic outcomes gap and 23% of the political outcomes gap has closed.

The chapter The Next Generation begins with this quote from Julian Simon:  “The main fuel to spark the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge;  the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities.  The ultimate resource is people—especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty—who will exert their will and imaginations for their own benefits, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well.”

Norbert begins with a discussion of child labor. He notes that the common impression that child labor was a result of the Industrial Revolution, but rather this was the first time when people began to react to child labour, write about it and demand an end to it.  In 1851 28% of  children aged between 10 and 14 were recorded was working.  Although this is a high number and it did not include the numerous girls who were working unpaid at home looking after younger siblings or generally helping out.  Still, it is much lower that it was in non-industrialized countries even 100 years later.  In 1950 the child labour rate in China had been estimated at 48%, in India 35%, and in Africa 38%.  Even in Italy the child labor rate was 29% in 1950.

The rate of child labor in England and Wales went from 28% in 1851 to 21% in 1891 and to 14% in 1911.  Soon it disappeared altogether.  This is what happened in every industrialized country.  The same change is now taking place in low- and middle-income countries.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the problem of child labor has disappeared.  It is still with us.  The International Labour Organization estimates the number of children between 5 and 17 years old and working.  In 2012 there were 168 million child laborers in that age group globally, down from 245 million in 2000, a reduction from 16% to 10.6% of all children.

The proportion of children between 5 and 11 years old in hazardous work—work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions has been reduced even faster, by two-thirds between 2000 and 2012 from 9.3% to 3.1%.

It is clear that more needs to be done, but it is also clear that progress has been extraordinary.  The next generation should be even better, but there is always the prospect of our fouling up.  This can come about in democracies by electing leaders who do not follow or believe in scientific findings.  Or by leaders either in democratic or authoritarian countries who engage in pointless conflicts.  In short, overconfidence is dangerous.  Not thinking critically and following demagogues rather than competent leaders can risk not just the failure to improve, but also to losing some of the significant advancements that have already been achieved.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© 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.