Posts Tagged ‘Steven Pinker’

Happy Fourth of July!

July 4, 2018

Many will say that we are proud to be Americans. However, when one thinks about this, it is a strange assertion. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, wrath, and sloth). Also consider the immediately preceding post, “Remember This Post on July 4.” There is little basis on which to be proud.

So we should celebrate the Fourth of July by setting aspirational goals regarding what American should be. At the time it was written, the Declaration of Independence was literally revolutionary. All men were created equal and were going to be guaranteed rights in the future Constitution. But at that time, although all men were created equal, women could not vote. And blacks were regarded as three-fifths of a human being and most blacks were slaves. We have been advancing from that point and have achieved moderate success. The goals we should be pursuing have been discussed in posts based on Steven Pinker’s book, “Enlightenment Now,” and on Jon Meecham’s book “The Soul of America.” Consider the following:
Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.
——-Baruch Spinoza
and
Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
——-David Deutsch

Consider how far we have fallen under the current president, who does not believe in objective truth. This is quite evident with his voluminous lies that have been counted and documented. For Trump, what be believes at the moment and what benefits him constitutes truth.

He has no interest in the welfare of mankind and uses lies to foster hate against people of certain religious faiths and people who want to immigrate to thus country. Consider Reagan’s City on the Hill Speech from his Farewell address:
“But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still…And she’s still a beacon and a magnet for all who must find freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

How far we have fallen.

It is amazing that there are Christians who are Trump supporters. Trump is the antithesis of a Christian.

How can this be? A clear distinction needs to be made between religions and churches. Churches function as businesses that are tax exempt. Unfortunately some churches participate in political activities and most definitely shouldn’t be tax exempt. But it should not be forgotten that churches are in the religion business. They need parishioners for both monetary and personal support. Many churches modify their religions to conform with the biases and beliefs of their parishioners to be successful. For most members belonging to and attending a church checks the box that will either insure or increase the likelihood of eternal life. During the services parishioners think they feel the presence of God. HM understands this from both a personal and a psychological perspective. And parishioners receive personal support from their fellow parishioners.

However, parishioners should understand that it is not their religious leaders who will make judgments about eternal life. Those judgments will be made by a true deity. For Christians, the judgment will be regarding how well Christ’s teachings were followed. The love of one’s fellow humans, caring for the sick, and the “turning” of the cheek when struck are Christ’s teachings. An important Christian belief that seems to have been forgotten is the tolerance of other religious beliefs. We need to love and respect all our fellow humans and feel responsible for fostering their well being. It appears likely that many will be surprised on judgment day.

If Christians followed the actual teachings of Christ, the United States would be well on its way to achieving its ideals. This is also true of most other religious beliefs. Unfortunately, many religious leaders have lost touch with what should be their true religions beliefs. It should be mentioned that religions go way beyond the teachings of Christ. Only the actual teachings of Christ are authoritative. Beliefs specific to particular religions can be regarded as arbitrary, at best, and even contrary to the teachings of Christ, at worst.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Hating Is Belonging: The Ex-White Supremacist

May 30, 2018

Jhumpa Lahiri: The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging.

This is the third chapter in The OPPOSITE of HATE: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity by Sally Kohn. Brent Brown writes, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart, We numb. We ache. We hurt others.”

Kohn writes, “The problem starts when our desire to belong leads to identify so strongly with a particular social group that we become fierce in or belonging—to the point of engaging in, or at least condoning, harmful otherizing. This capacity to otherize lies deep within us, bred into us through the long course human evolution.” Evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson writes, “The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct.”

Kohn writes, “SOCIAL GROUP IDENTITY was a reality in North America from the moment European colonialists arrived. The fact that they even claimed they ‘discovered’ the ‘New World’ was already indicative of hierarchical us/them thinking—to them, the people already there plainly didn’t matter. Thus, it wasn’t just white people who ‘founded’ the United States but white supremacy—the fundamental idea that the white people of the planet are inherently superior to everyone else and deserve to take whatever they want and do whatever they want. Of course, the very idea of ‘whiteness’ is a social construct; as columnist Michael Harriot puts it, it’s “‘just some dumb shit people made up a long time ago to build a fence around their idea of self-supremacy.’”

Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” owned more that six hundred black men, women, and children as slaves, apparently not seeing a contradiction between what he wrote and what he did because as Jefferson once said free blacks were “pests in society…as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” This is just the tip of some of the most vicious racist writings that have ever been written. Moreover, Jefferson bred with these blacks. This should be written on his monument and at his residence, “America’s foremost hypocrite.”

Arno Michaelis was not only a member of a white-supremacist neo-Nazi group; he was also one of the most prominent white-power leaders in North America. In 1987, he became a founding member of the Northern Hammerskins in Milwaukee, which evolved into Hammerskin Nation—the largest white-power skinhead group in the world. Arno was also the lead singer for Centurion, one of the top white-power bands worldwide. Kohn writes, “the thing that surprised me the most about Arno was that he didn’t think of himself as especially hateful toward others, even when he was the leader of a bona fide hate group. He just thought that he was benevolently, even heroically, looking out for his ‘own kind.’ What I ended up learning is that a lot of people who join extremist hate groups don’t even really hate the maligned out-group as much as they crave approval from the in-group they’ve embraced. They’re just looking for belonging. The hate comes later.”

One day Arno went to buy his Big Mac at a McDonald’s filled with a cross-section of MIlwaukee’s black and white and Latina residents, and an older black woman was working the cash register. Arno had seen her there before. Arno ordered his burger and then reached in his pocket and handed the woman his sloppy pile of dimes and pennies and nickels. Which is when she noticed the new swastika tattoo on his finger. “What’s that?” she slowly, even carefully asked.

‘It’s nothing,” Arno whispered, shoving his hand back in his pocket.

Which is when the black woman looked the white supremacist in the eyes and, with a kind voice and even a hint of a smile, said to Arno, “You’re a better person than that. I know that’s not who you are.”

Kohn writes, “Arno grabbed his sandwich, turned on his heel, and fled. He never went back. But he also never saw his life quite the same way again. His views didn’t exactly change overnight, but almost. In fact, one of the most jarring things about Arno’s story is not only how relatively casually he left the white-supremacist movement but also how relatively accidentally he joined it in the first place.” To describe briefly how he joined it: He was a rock singer who fell into a white supremacist band.

In 1994 Dan Koren published a study showing that the surge in violent gang membership in the late 1980s in the US and Europe was driven by kids from “affluent, upscale communities.” Pete Simi, a sociologist at Chapman University who is one of the foremost scholars on domestic right-wing hate groups, found that members of right-wing hate groups come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Another study found that expressions of overt racism by whites were not motivated by fears around economic competition, but by anger about “race mixing”—in other words, not economic anxieties, but cultural supremacy. Contrary to popular belief, hate and violence are not necessarily a recourse of the poor, but are sometimes a luxury of the rich. Hate doesn’t fall in one income bracket.

Pete Simi, who has interviewed more than a hundred former neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, explains that most white supremacists don’t primarily seek to join a hate group; they’re just looking for belonging. He says they “slide in” from the side more due to camaraderie than doctrine, and they don’t fully confront the racist beliefs until they’re already bonded with the group. “Ideology is important, but it’s not necessarily the initial attraction that draws the person to the group,’ Simi writes. “The ideology is often there early on but it’s not crystallized—it’s like there may be bits and pieces of the ideology that are attractive early on, but rarely do you have someone who has a full appreciation for the ideology and then seeks out the group. Over time, ideology becomes more important as the person becomes more familiar with the ideas.”

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has concluded that “Human nature may embrace motives that lead to aggression, but it also embraces motives like empathy, self, control and reason, which, under the right circumstances can outweigh aggressive impulses.

Frans de Waal, who has spent his career studying primates and comparing their behavior to human nature, argues that compassion and kindness traces back through ancient evolution—“probably as old as mammals and birds.” Kohn writes, “So while the desire for belonging may be part of what draws people into hate groups, that innate pull toward empathy turns out to be a powerful antidote to extremist hate. Just as the search for belonging brought Arno into white supremacy, finding that sense of belonging elsewhere was what helped him escape.

The Antithesis of the Enlightenment

April 19, 2018

We Americans are living in the antithesis of the Enlightenment discussed in Steven Pinker’s “ENLIGHTENMENT NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” Consider the two quotes at the beginning of the book

Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.
——-Baruch Spinoza

Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
——-David Deutsch

HM would like to see a poll asking Americans to rate their degree of agreement or disagreement with the two statements.

Consider Spinoza’s statement. One would expect a fairly high degree of agreement for those who espouse the “Golden Rule,” “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” One could regard Spinoza’s statement as being a paraphrase of the Golden Rule. However, many would probably disagree because this is clearly the dreaded socialism.

It would be interesting to see the response to Deutsch’s statement broken down by people with different educational backgrounds. It would not be surprising that there might be some scientists who would strongly agree with this statement. HM would say that this is an empirical question so we don’t know yet.

Now let us consider Donald Trump and his followers, not with respect to how they would rate these statements, but what they reflect in their own statements and behavior.

Donald Trump has one metric, personal wealth. That is how he evaluates himself and his fellow human beings. Service to the country or to fellow human beings matters not. True, he does admire generals for the stars on their shoulders and the power they control, but not John McCain, because he does not value POWs. HIs personal charity has been identified as a sham and what little he does in the way of giving is essentially regifting what has been given to him. He is an extremely shallow and thin-skinned individual. He is constantly harshly responding to what he regards as slights. It is hard to believe that he is an unhappen individual, but he is. Whatever little intellectual capacity he might have is limited by the length of a tweet. So he has no appreciation for science or the arts. He is provided the best intelligence available in the world, but chooses to get his information from Fox news, which supports the alternative reality in which Trump resides.

It is interesting to contrast Donald Trump with the Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller. Both were born rich. Trump’s life goal was to become richer. Robert Mueller devoted himself to public service. Although he could have avoided military service, as Trump did, Mueller volunteered for the Marines during the Viet Nam War. Here is his service record taken from the Wikipedia:
For his service in and during the Vietnam War, his military decorations and awards include: the Bronze Star Medal with Combat “V”, Purple Heart Medal, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals with Combat “V”, Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with three service stars, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, and Parachutist Badge.
He continued his life devoted to public service after he left the Marine Corps. Eventually he was appointed head of the FBI and served his full 10 year term. He is a Republican and he is dedicated to the law.

Trump has had six bankruptcies, where good working people were stiffed due to overly lenient bankruptcy laws. He created and ran Trump University, which was a scam. He has had transactions with organized crime including the Russian Mafia.

It is both infuriating and absurd that Trump can attack and denigrate Robert Miller. And it is hard to believe that the Grand Old Party (GOP) is also attacking fellow Republican Mueller and the Department of Justice. Trump and the GOP continue to deny any collusion with the Russians, although it is a certainty that Putin approves of what is happening while Ronald Reagan is raging in his grave.

Whether Trump is a true billionaire or someone who is in debt for billions of dollars remains an open question as he keeps his finances and tax returns concealed. But he has the attitude of many billionaires that they never have enough, as this is the only way they have for evaluating their success. Their question is where do I stand on the list that Forbes publishes. These billionaires are shallow individuals. They have no intellectual depth. They cannot appreciate the possible satisfaction of giving to charities. The Gates and America’s foremost capitalist, Warren Buffet, plan to effectively give their fortunes away. Moreover, they are against inherited wealth. They do not think it is good for either their children or the country.

Most of the large extant wealth is inherited wealth. So these are people lucky by birth. Donald Trump himself did not start from scratch. He began with money from his father. Some, perhaps many, of these wealthy parties use their wealth to sponsor activities that further their personal wealth. They reason that the system must be good because it has benefitted them. All of this has produced a gross maldistribution of wealth that does not bode well for the country.

Science is regarded by many of these people as something that gets in the way of increasing their wealth. So it is not something to be appreciated, but rather ignored and even destroyed. The United States is currently being raped by Trump appointees who are not only disregarding scientific information, but also destroying scientific information. The next administration will be preoccupied with the task of undoing the considerable damage that is being done to the United States by the Trump administration.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Science

April 18, 2018

Dr. Pinker argues in “Enlightenment Now” that the greatest accomplishment of our species is science. HM strongly agrees with this statement. It is certainly responsible for our standard of living. Most of the progress documented by Dr. Pinker would not have occurred without science. This being the case, what could possibly be the problem.

One problem comes from religions who believe scriptures that are clearly wrong and deny Science. The Amish do this, but HM admires the Amish in that they adopt, for the most part, a standard of living commensurate to their ignorance of science. However, most accept the fruits of science while denying scientific findings.

Perhaps the best example of this is their denial of evolution and their embracement of intelligent design. Unfortunately, too many people argue against teaching intelligent design in schools, and for the teaching of evolutionary theory. HM dislikes this because science should not be taught as dogma. Moreover, comparing intelligent design with evolutionary design provides a good means of illustrating the essence of science.

Intelligent design cherry picks species that they argue could only be done by the hand of God. One can easily find living species that make one wonder why they were created, but it is the dead and extinct species that are most informative. What are they? Failures of God? Did God screw up millions to times trying develop the remaining species? What explains them? Don’t they point to an evolutionary process? And what about geological data? Those data, that came to us through many years of research by the more intelligent of our species is to be ignored because of what is said in the bible?

The conflict between science and religion is unnecessary. HM believes in God and there are many religions that do not claim for the literal interpretation of the bible. When there is good scientific data, that should be believed rather than some religious scripture. The Dalai Lama provides a good example. He uses science to inform his religion. And he sends his followers to learn science.

The disrespect of science among American right-wing politicians has led even stalwarts (such as Bobby Jindal) to disparage their own Republican party as the “party of the stupid.” This reputation grew out of policies set in motion during George W. Bush’s administration including the encouragement of the teaching of intelligent design in lieu of evolution, and a shift from the longstanding practice of seeking advice from disinterested scientific panels to stacking the panels with congenial ideologues, may of whom promoted flaky ideas (such as that abortion causes breast cancer) while denying well-supported ones (such as condoms preventing sexually transmitted diseases).

The highest point of this stupidity has been reached with the Incompetent who is currently serving as the President of the United States. Not only is he not using science and denying science, but he is both making scientific information difficult to access and even destroying scientific information.

Dr. Pinker makes every effort to be fair. He notes that there are those on the left of the political spectrum who have stoked panics about overpopulation, nuclear power, and genetically modified organisms. It is important that these potential problems be brought to public attention, but people must do their own reading to get a more balanced understanding of the issues.

There are many criticisms of science that are just irrelevant. One is reductionism. Reductionism is not the aim of all science. Some areas of research employ reductionism. But at different levels, new processes emerge. And research areas are designed for particular areas that emerge at different levels. So one can study neuroscience, but then others study the processes that emerge from neuroscience, such as cognition.

There are also criticisms of science by intellectuals. Frankly, HM attributes most of these criticisms as intellectual jealousy. Although their studies might be interesting, they are not that relevant to the rest of society, and do not contribute much to public welfare.

Regarding public welfare and political disagreements, a scientific approach should be embraced. When a problem is identified and there is disagreement about how to deal with the problem a scientific approach is recommended. Design a study to evaluate the alternative approaches. This could also provide the data for the possible quantification of the magnitude of the benefit or problem, depending on what is being studied. Do not argue “I believe.” Beliefs should be left at home. Points should be argued with logic and data.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 andhealthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reason

April 17, 2018

Steven Pinker has a chapter called Reason in his outstanding book, “Enlightenment Now.” Part of the problem with reason or reasoning are beliefs, as was expounded in a previous healthy memory blog post, “Beliefs: Necessary, but Dangerous.” The legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance protected by identity-protective connection. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. Endorsing a belief that hasn’t passed muster with science and fact-checking isn’t so irrational. At least not by the criterion of the immediate effects on the believer. The effects on the society and planet are another matter. The atmosphere doesn’t care what people think about it, and if it in fact warms by 4 degrees Celsius, billions of people will suffer, no matter how many of them had been esteemed in their peer groups for holding a locally fashionable opinion on climate change along the way. Kahn concluded that we are all actors in a Tragedy of 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). Technology has the effect of magnifying differences that result in polarization in political and social domains.

A fundamental problem is that accurate knowledge can be effortful and time consuming to obtain. Predictions are very difficulty as some have noted especially when they are about the future. Psychologist Philip Tetlock has studied the accuracy of forecasters. He recruited hundreds of analysts, columnists, academics, and interested laypeople to compete in forecasting tournaments in which they were presented with possible events and asked to assess their likelihood. This research was conducted over 20 years during which 28,000 predictions were made. So, how well did the experts do? On average, about as well as a chimpanzee throwing darts. In other words, not better than chance.

Tetlock and fellow psychologists Mellers and Gardner held another competition between 2011 and 2015 in which they recruited several thousand contestants to take part in a forecasting tournament held by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA). Again the average performance was at chance levels, but in both tournaments the researchers could pick out “superforecasters,” who performed not just better than chimps and pundits, but better than professional intelligence officers with access to classified information, better than prediction markets, and not too far from the theoretical maximum. The accurate predictions last for about a year. Accuracy declines into the future, and falls to the level of chance around 5 years out.

The forecasters who did the worst, were also the most confident, were the ones with Big Ideas, be they left- or right wing, optimistic or pessimistic. Here is the summary by Tetlock & Gardner:

“As ideologically diverse as they were, they were united by the fact that their thinking was so ideological. They sought to squeeze complex problems into the preferred cause-effect templates and treated what did not fit as irrelevant distractions. Allergic to wishy-washy answers, they kept pushing their analyses to the limit (and then some), using terms like “furthermore” and “moreover” while piling up reasons why they were right and others wrong. As a result they were unusually confident and likelier to declare things as “impossible” or “certain.” Committed to their conclusions, they were reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions clearly failed.”

Tetlock described the super forecasters as follows:

“pragmatic experts who drew on many analytical tools, with the choice of tool hinging on the particular problem they faced. These experts gathered as much information from as many sources as they could. When thinking, they often shifted mental gears, sprinkling their speech with transition markers such as “however,” “but,” “although,” and “on the other hand.” They talked about possibilities and probabilities, not certainties. And while no one likes to say, “I was wrong,” these experts more readily admitted it and changed their minds.”

The superforecasters displayed what psychologist Jonathan Baron calls “active open-mindedness” with opinions such as these:

People should take into consideration evidence that goes against they beliefs. [Agree]
It is more useful to pay attention to those who disagree with you than to pay attention to those who agree. [Agree]
Changing your mind is a sign of weakness. [Disagree]
Intuition is the best guide in making decisions. [Disagree]
It is important to persevere in your beliefs even went evidence is brought to bear against them. [Disagree]

The manner of the Superforecasters’ reasoning is Bayesian. They tacitly use the rule from the Reverend Bayes on how to update one’s degree of credence in a proposition in light of evidence. It should be noted that Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight.com) is also a Bayesian.

Steven Pinker notes that psychologists have recently devised debiasing programs that fortify logical and critical thinking criteria. They encourage students to spot, name, and correct fallacies across a wide range of contexts. Some use computer games that provide students with practice, and with feedback that allows them to see the absurd consequences of their errors. Other curricula translate abstruse mathematical statements into concrete, imaginable scenarios. Tetlock has compiled the practices of successful forecasters into a set of guidelines for good judgment (for example, start with the base rate; seek out evidence and don’t overreact or under react to it; don’t try to explain away your own errors but instead use them as a source of calibration). These and other programs are provably effective: students’ newfound wisdom outlasts the training session and transfers to new subjects.

Dr. Pinker concludes,”Despite these successes, and despite the fact that the ability to engage in unbiased, critical reasoning is a prerequisite to thinking about anything else, few educational institutions have set themselves the goal of enhancing rationality (This includes my own university, where my suggestion during a curriculum review that all students should learn about cognitive biases fell deadborn from my lips.) Many psychologists have called on their field to “give debiasing away” as one of its greatest potential contributions to human welfare.”

It seems appropriate to end this post on reason with the Spinoza quote from the beginning of the book:

“Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.”

Unfortunately, Now We’re Off the Tracks

April 16, 2018

And that is because of Donald Trump. Most of the following is taken directly from Steven Pinker’s ENLIGHTENMENT NOW:

“Life and Health have been expanded in large part by vaccination and other well-vetted interventions, and among the conspiracy theories that Trump has endorsed is the long-debunked claim that preservatives in vaccines cause autism. The gains have also been secured by broad access to medical care, and he has pushed for legislation that would withdraw health insurance from tens of millions of American, a reversal of the trend toward beneficial spending.

Worldwide improvements in wealth have come from a globalized economy, powered in large part by international trade. Trump is a protectionist who sees international trade as a zero-sum contest between countries, and is committed to tearing up international trade agreements.

Growth in wealth will also be driven by technological innovation, education, infrastructure, an increase in the spending power of the lower and middle classes, constraints on cronyism and plutocracy that distort market competition, and regulations on finance that reduce the likelihood of bubbles and crashes. In addition to being hostile to trade, Trump is indifferent to technology and education and an advocate of regressive tax cuts on the wealthy, while appointing corporate and financial tycoons to his cabinet who are indiscriminately hostile to regulation.

In capitalizing on concerns about inequality, Trump has demonized immigrants and trade partners while ignoring the major disrupter of lower-middle-class jobs, technological change. He has also opposed the measures that most successfully mitigate its harms, namely progressive taxation and social spending.

The environment has benefited from regulations on air and water pollution that have coexisted with growth in population, GDP, and travel. Trump believes that environmental regulation is economically destructive; worst of all, he has called climate change a hoax and announced a withdrawal from the historic Paris agreement.

Safety, too, has been dramatically improved by federal regulations, toward which Trump and his allies are contemptuous. While Trump has cultivated a reputation for law and order, he is viscerally uninterested in evidence-based policy that would distinguish effective crime-prevention measures from useless tough talk.”

“Postwar Peace has been cemented by trade, democracy, international agreements and organizations and norms against conquest. Trump has vilified international trade and has threatened to defy international agreements and weaken international organizations.” He is an admirer of Vladimir Putin. Enough said.

“Democracy depends both on explicit constitutional protections such as freedom of the press and on shared norms, in particular that political leadership is determined by the rule of law and nonviolent political competition rather than a charismatic leader’s will to power.” Trump has exhibited contempt for these norms.

“The ideals of tolerance, equality, and Equal Rights took big symbolic hits during his campaign and early administration. Trump demonized Hispanic immigrants, proposed banning Muslim immigration altogether (and tried to impose a partial ban once elected), repeatedly demeaned women, tolerated vulgar expressions of racism and sexism at his rallies, accepted support from white supremacist groups and equated them with their opponents, and appointed a strategist and an attorney general who are hostile to the civil rights movement.”

“The ideal of Knowledge—that opinions should be based on justified true beliefs—has been mocked by Trump’s repetition of ludicrous conspiracy theories: that Obama was born in Kenya, Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in John F. Kennedy’s assassination, thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrated 9/11, Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, Obama had his phones tapped millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote, and literally dozens of others.” Need more be written?

“Most frighteningly Trump has pushed back against the norms that have protected the world against the possible existential threat of nuclear war.” “Worst of all, the chain of command gives an American president enormous discretion over the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis, on the tacit assumption that no president would act rashly on such a grave matter. Yet Trump has a temperament that is notoriously impulsive and vindictive.”

Steven Pinker ENLIGHTENMENT NOW

April 15, 2018

The title of this post is the same as the title of a new and important book by Steven Pinker. The subtitle of the book is “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Two quotes capture the central message of the book:

Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.
——-Baruch Spinoza

Everything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.
——-David Deutsch

One can ask, is there a need for the Enlightenment Now? Who would argue against reason, science, humanism, or progress?
To which Dr. Pinker answers: “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 tribalism 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.”

Dr. Pinker writes about the future of progress. “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the enlightenment began, a third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today, that fate befalls 6% of the children in the poorest parts. When the enlightenment began, one % of the mothers in the richest countries did not live to see their newborns, a rate triple that of the poorest countries today, and this continues to fall.”

The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90% to less than 10%. Catastrophic famine, never far away in most of human history, has vanished from most of the world, and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline. A century ago, richer countries devoted one% of their wealth to supporting children, the poor, and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it. Most of the poor today are fed, clothed, and sheltered, and have luxuries like smartphones and air-conditioning that use to be unavailable to anyone, rich or poor.

The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, a seventh of what it was in the early 1970s and an eighteenth of what it was in the early 1950s, and a half a % of what it was during WW II. People are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable and smarter. Early in the 19th century, 12% could read and write; today 83% can. The schooling, together with health and wealth, are literally making use smarter—by 30 IQ points, or two standard deviations above our ancestors.

Dr. Pinker details the progress that has been made in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. To be sure, much still remains to be done, but pessimists should not be so pessimistic. The problem is that what is in the news and what is being written about are typically the problems that need to be addressed. Naturally this leads to pessimism. But Dr. Pinker does a reality reset. Much has been done and optimism is justified.

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

October 6, 2016

HM is not close on the ideological spectrum to Johan Norbert the author of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.”  But the data and the reasoning presented in this volume are sound.  HM hopes that readers of the healthy memory blog are not naive realists.  That is they are aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but rather build mental models on the basis  of our interactions with the external world.  We need to be aware that these models are imperfect and are need of constant updating.  The data in Progress indicate that some of these models are way off the mark  and are in need to massive updating.

The Gapminder Foundation has done several “ignorance” surveys using multiple-choice questions.  In Britain only ten percent thought that world poverty had decreased in the last thirty years.  More than half thought that a it had increased.  In the United States only five percent answered correctly that world poverty had been almost halved in the last twenty years.  Sixty-six percent thought that that it had almost doubled.

Lasse Berg and Stig Karlson are two researchers who traveled to India in the 1970s and had predicted doom in Asia. Their predictions turned out to be wrong, but the Indian people they visited did not think so themselves.  When they visited in the 1970s the villagers complained about oppression, illiteracy and how difficult it was for the family to get enough to eat.  The children, one of whom was named Satto, worked hard in the fields every day.  When Berg and Carlson revisited the village in the 1990s, the woman Sato complained that life was now more difficult and she now had to work hard for her kids.  She said that her childhood had been much easier and that she had just played all day.  So her memory was playing tricks.  Satto is not unique, our memories play tricks on all of us.  When Berg returned again in 2010, Satto was happier with life and the living standard the family had attained, but claimed that she didn’t remember her complaints during the 1990s.  Her memory now at that life was good in the 1990s as well.

The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky formulated the “availability heuristic,” which said that we judge the frequency of an event in terms of how available they in memory rather than on their objective frequency.  Moreover, we rarely know the objective frequency of any event.  So what is available in memory is rarely commensurate with reality.  Moreover what is usually available in memory is based on the news, and what is most newsworthy are crime, accidents, natural disasters, so that is the information we have to make generalizations about reality or predictions about the future.

The psychologist Steven Pinker has identified this as one of the three psychological biases that a make us think that the world is worse that it really is.  This one is the well-documented fact that “bad is stronger than good” — we are more likely to remember losing money, being abandoned by friends or receiving criticism  than we are to remember winning money, gaining friends or receiving praise.  Negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information.

A second basis is the psychology of moralization.  Complaining about problems is a way of sending a signal to others that you care about them, so critics see us as more morally engaged.  Thomas Hobbes also noticed that criticizing the present has a way of competing without rivals and contemporaries, whereas we can easily praise past generations, because they are not our competitors.

A third bias is nostalgia about a golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better.  Arthur Herman observed:  “Virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears.”  The poet Hesiod, in the seventh century ice, thought that there once had been a Golden Age when humans live in harmony with the gods, and did not have to work since nature provided them with food.  Hesiod lived in the Iron Age, where conflict and mortality reined, and where humans had to toil to survive.  Next came the Silver Age with strife and worry, followed by a Bronze Age with even more strife and worry.  Most cultures, religions, and ideologies have had similar mythologies relating a prehistorical lost paradise to which the decadent present is compared.

So the mechanisms for pessimism are fairly well understood.  The next posts will be devoted to realigning our erroneous mental models so that they correspond more closely to reality.

The progress that is the topic of this book started with the intellectual Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  At this time there were people who began to examine the world with the tools of empiricism, rather than being content with authorities, traditions, superstition, and religions.  The political corollary, classical liberalism, began to liberate people from the shackles of heredity, authoritarianism, and serfdom.  The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth followed, when industrial power multiplied, and poverty and hunger began to be conquered.  These successive revolutions were enough to free of large part of humanity from the harsh living condition it had always lived under.  With the late twentieth-century globalization, as these technologies and freedoms began to spread around the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and at a faster pace that ever before.

It is essential that we be aware of a real risk of a nativist backlash, one that might be occurring already.  When people do not see the progress the has been made, they begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.  Unfortunately, some might be willing to try their luck with any demagogue who tells us that he has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again.

Subsequent posts will be covering what Norbert calls Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, which are specific areas in which substantial progress has been made.  In the meantime, go to http://www.gapminder.org.   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

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