Deepities With a Side of Vat-Grown Beef


I’m not sure what the correct term for this is, perhaps “halo effect” or maybe it’s “transferrence” or just plain old “confirmation bias” but there’s a weird thing humans do, when they notice that someone is knowledgeable about X they sometimes get super impressed and assume that person is also knowledgeable about Y and maybe Z. I think it’s “confirmation bias” – but I’m skeptical of terminology in general.

How do we account for “experts” and “public intellectuals”? I’m willing to grant that someone like Richard Feynman or Ursula LeGuin is brilliant and knows a lot about a lot of things – but I’m also pretty sure they don’t know a lot about everything and, if they were really thinking honestly about any given question, they might reply, “I don’t know.” I was going to say “for everything else, there’s TED Talks” except TED talks are narrow-focused talks by presumed experts in the field that they are talking about. I think it’s pretty reasonable to want to hear what Stephen Hawking has to say about black holes, but asking him a question about economics – maybe not so good. I’d like to think Hawking would be honest enough to say “I don’t know” but you can’t be sure.

The obvious answer is “Don’t treat people as experts outside of their field of expertise” which I would generalize to “don’t assume there are general purpose experts in everything.” Put differently, how much more qualified is Ray Kurzweil to talk about the future than, say, Deepak Chopra?

Another warning flag, for me, is the “over the horizon effect” – I’ll offer it here (since I am a general expert in “effects” of all types!) as:

If someone is predicting something to happen after they are safely dead, ask them about the method by which they predicted the time-frame.

Be especially careful if they want your money, now, and it’s got something to do with something that’s going to happen after they’ve safely crossed the bar.

I am not raising this as criticism, exactly, of Yuval Harari – or Michio Kaku, or Noam Chomsky, or Christopher Hitchens, or any other pundit: I want to know why pundits are a thing. It seems profoundly irrational, to me, to engage in or consume punditry. I know, you’re thinking “…. says the blogger.” Except I hope you’ll notice I try extremely hard to separate facts as I understand them from opinions as I present them. It seems to me as though one achieves punditry when they get tired one night, and just stop waffling and start speaking with great certainty – and the crowd eats it up. This is another reason I am interested in The Authoritarians [stderr] – I used to work with a fellow who seemed predisposed to believe almost anything he was told with a certain energetic delivery, sort of like a baptist preacher’s cant. When I see the way people lap up TED Talks (how do we know those people are really “experts” and they’re not just zooming the audience like Reggie Watts does occasionally)

“… that’s one of the things I enjoy most about this convention. It’s not so much, as so little has to do with what everything is. But it is within our self-interest to understand the topography of our lives, unto ourselves. The Future states that, ‘There is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories which we are living.’ …”   etc.

Reggie’s brilliant and has great rhythm and I’m pretty sure that if you asked him about black holes he’d probably sound much cleverer than Sean Carroll because Carroll would actually have to think about your question whereas Reggie could jump directly to boggling your mind without having to think at all.

Yuval Harari [guardian]

Yuval Harari [guardian]

I’m pondering this issue today because The Guardian dropped me a link to a bunch of interviews with Yuval Harari. Now, Harari sounds like a very smart fellow, and has a background in medieval history of warfare – yet he’s written a (by all accounts brilliant) book about the future and there doesn’t appear to be a topic he’s afraid to touch. And the interviewers appear to be willing to ask for oracular pronouncements.

Here’s an example:

Q: You said that our predilection to create abstract concepts such as religion, nationality etc is the quality which singled out sapiens from other hominids. Given that is also the inspiration for wars that may bring about our destruction, is it a strength or a weakness? (Esther Rantzen, broadcaster)

In terms of power, it’s obvious that this ability made Homo sapiens the most powerful animal in the world, and now gives us control of the entire planet. From an ethical perspective, whether it was good or bad, that’s a far more complicated question. The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.

The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.

Uh, what? Like I said, I’m not trying to pick on Harari – I could just as easily be asking “why does anyone listen to Derrida?” So I thought I’d illustrate my point by going on Youtube and finding some bit of Derrida talking like Reggie Watts, but instead I found a bit where an interviewer asked Derrida a really stupid question (“do you have anything you would like to comment about Love?”) to which Derrida responded that it was a ridiculous question. [derrida on youtube] Then, he goes off, bouncing across the landscape, with Reggie Watts listening appreciatively.

Q: But these fictions often inspire us to do great things. Would an unblinking view of reality create the same motivation?

We certainly need some fictions in order to have large-scale societies. That’s true. But we need to use these fictions to serve us instead of being enslaved by them. A good analogy is maybe a football game. The laws of the game are fictional, they’re a creation of humans, there is nothing in nature that mandates the laws of the football game. As long as you remember that these are just laws that people invented to serve your aim, then you can play the game. If you completely give up these laws because they are fictional, then you can’t play football.

The description the Guardian gives, of Harari’s brilliance, is glowing:

It is a dazzlingly bold introduction, which the remainder of the book lives up to on almost every page. Although Sapiens has been widely and loudly praised, some critics have suggested that it is too sweeping. Perhaps, but it is an intellectual joy to be swept along.

Could it be that now and again humans just like a nice steaming shovel-full of bullshit? Is this a manifestation of some authoritarian follower tendency? Are there intellectual authoritarians, and intellectual authoritarian followers? I bet that any one of us could whip together a 30-question survey to detect intellectual authoritarian tendencies in an afternoon. Hey, if you do that and get any publications out of it, list me as a reference, to broaden my portfolio of expertise and maybe we can do a TED Talk about it.

divider

I can haz evolutionary psychology:
The halo/confirmation bias/expert effect: Here’s how it works – when we hear someone telling us something that sounds true and clever, to us, we get a little jolt of pleasure as our brain recognizes the pattern of that thing we already knew, suspected, or figured out. That’s a basic evolved feature of how our brains do pattern-matching and recognition; we are evolved to orient ourselves toward a reward so we reward ourselves for knowing things because that has survival value. “Confirmation bias” is our tendency, then, to orient toward the mental reward of recognition. When we listen to an “expert” who is throwing out a cascade of recognizable but not immediately useful ideas, we get stuck into a reward loop: the more they say the better we feel about them, and ourselves, and the more likely we are to believe that, since they started out simple and being right about a few things, they’re probably dramatically right about a lot of things. Some public intellectuals instinctively use this effect by starting out with a few things that are comprehensible and factual, such as “up is up” and “water is wet” and after their audience have fallen into the reward loop, they have operantly conditioned their audience to believe anything they say. This is how economics works.

Wow, it’s scary how easily you can mash together some fnord fnord and wrap a little pseudo evolutionary psychology around it and it sounds semi-plausible. Quantum! OK, I was kidding about the “economics” bit.

Medieval history of warfare: I haven’t read Harari on military history, but if you’re into that stuff, you might want to read the bits of John Keegan’s The Face of Battle that describe what it was probably like.

By the way, I listed Noam Chomsky as a “pundit” because I suppose I was trying to be fair. Chomsky is a linguist and somehow became a “public intellectual” and public dissident. I think that a lot of what he says makes sense and he cites facts and circumstances backing it up and so, I find myself accepting his world-view to some degree. But – should I?

 

Intellectual Authoritarianism Survey:
1) I believe anything Brian Cox tells me, he’s so dishy (Agree Strongly)
2) There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, so I tend to believe stuff (Disagree Strongly)
3) Deepak Chopra really sounds like he means what he says (Disagree Strongly)
4) Whoever posts the most comments in a blog usually knows the most (Disagree Strongly)
5) The amount of formatting and capitalization in a comment indicates the sincerity of the writer (Disagree Strongly)
6) PZ Myers controls the postings and content of all FreeThoughtBlogs bloggers (Agree Strongly)
7) I have not read this far (Disagree Strongly)
..etc.

Comments

  1. says

    Ordinary people have gods and heroes that are discarded when seen as failures, wise people have guides whose words are weighed carefully before moving on.

  2. cartomancer says

    Thinking about the future is thinking in the wrong direction for an historian. Thinking about the present is suspicious enough. I try to avoid it at all costs myself.

  3. Johnny Vector says

    Meh. I think what he’s saying there makes sense, but… Why use so many words to say “humans like myths”, but without providing any factual support? Joseph Campbell made that point decades ago, with backup. Unless you can derive something new from it, it’s pretty boring.

  4. Siobhan says

    Anecdotally, I can definitely say that even if my seminars, conferences, and presentations are meticulously researched for my own sake, that they can only be a hit when I deliver them with force and charisma.

    C’est la vie.

  5. polishsalami says

    The worst person of all when it comes to this is Steven Pinker.

    Now, not everything Pinker says about subjects outside of his areas of expertise are necessarily wrong, it’s just that (imo) they have no level of insight above those of any reasonably-educated person you might run into on the street. Just because Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard doesn’t mean he has insightful views on genetics, history, feminism, or the BDS movement against Israel.

  6. says

    I was literally just thinking about this. Watching a climate change ‘debate’ unfold and I realized that these old men agree with wossname about military strength because they’re vets, so they take his word for it on the weather.

    So after getting smug for a nanosecond I said to myself ‘well, we’ve got Chomsky, don’t we’

    And then you posted a video.

    I think it’s proof of either telepathy or God. Maybe both.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Chomsky is a linguist and somehow became a “public intellectual” and public dissident.

    He did his homework, provided facts and revealing quotations, and used the same skills which enabled his linguistic analyses to uncover patterns (specifically, comparing what our glorious leaders say to what they do).

    Then he wrote books and gave talks which led people to understand he was on to something and could express it clearly (much more clearly than his linguistics work, imo). Many of the things he predicted then occurred.

    Do the same, and you too can achieve pundititude!

  8. says

    Lofty@#1:
    Ordinary people have gods and heroes that are discarded when seen as failures, wise people have guides whose words are weighed carefully before moving on.

    Quoted for truth.

    Is there something in humans that wants to believe people who speak confidently, whether they know what they are speaking about or not? If that’s the case, maybe it explains religion: someone makes up a bunch of semi-plausible stuff and delivers it enthusiastically and charismatically, and off you go! That doesn’t explain Scientology, though….

  9. says

    cartomancer@#2:
    Thinking about the future is thinking in the wrong direction for an historian. Thinking about the present is suspicious enough. I try to avoid it at all costs myself.

    There’s that damned quip by Santayana. I wish he hadn’t said that. It encourages people to think that by understanding the past better they can control the future, and I’m not sure that’s quite the case. By analyzing the past, we can form strategies that may help us in the future, I suppose.

  10. says

    Shiv@#4:
    Anecdotally, I can definitely say that even if my seminars, conferences, and presentations are meticulously researched for my own sake, that they can only be a hit when I deliver them with force and charisma.

    I wasn’t advocating in favor of flat affect boring presentations. I had enough of those to last me a lifetime when I was in the Army. (droning) “In this module we will be instructing you regarding the use of your gas mask and MOPP gear…”..

    I’m interested in the degree to which some people will believe anything that is delivered with force and charisma. They are out there. But then oddly there are people who will listen to Mitch McConnell or Trey Gowdy speak and not fall over dead from incredulity. So it’s not entirely force and charisma. There are people out there who have charisma rolls in the negative numbers.

  11. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#7:
    He did his homework, provided facts and revealing quotations, and used the same skills which enabled his linguistic analyses to uncover patterns (specifically, comparing what our glorious leaders say to what they do).

    Then he wrote books and gave talks which led people to understand he was on to something and could express it clearly (much more clearly than his linguistics work, imo). Many of the things he predicted then occurred.

    Yup! I still keep an eye on what everyone says. I don’t think Chomsky’s delivery is particularly dynamic or witty or interesting, so I tend to stay focused on what he says and why. And I actually do fact-check even him (generally I now share overlapping facts with him) More problematic is someone like Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’ facts seem to be pretty good, but I don’t agree with the conclusions he drew from them. But I loved how he presented his conclusions (most of the time, when he wasn’t doing his wince-inducing “drain the swamp” or “women aren’t funny” bit) Hitch made some really badly drawn conclusions sound interesting and insightful, his delivery and self-confidence were that good.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t have pundits. In my own little way, I am arguably engaging in punditry. myself. I am, however, not assuming that because people are blown away by my skill in soap-making or boozing, that my political analysis or strategic views on verbal abuse are accurate. One of the things I appreciate a great deal about being given the opportunity to blog here is how it has forced me to constantly assess myself and level up my game. Because I know that The Commentariat(tm) will ruthlessly pull me off, if I try to climb up onto a marble plinth. I assume so, anyway! I think our ability to get away with bullshit, in general, should be as small as possible without being forced to re-introduce every fact into evidence, every time.

  12. says

    Andrew Molitor@#6:
    Watching a climate change ‘debate’ unfold and I realized that these old men agree with wossname about military strength because they’re vets, so they take his word for it on the weather.

    I know, right!? It freaks me out when I see that!!
    And it’s one of the engines of marketing: “Because Kobe Bryant likes Nutella* you should try it too!” I assume that marketing like that works, because otherwise nobody’d do it. But that presumption means that someone looks at a bottle of Trump(r) Vodka and thinks, “WOW THAT MUST BE GREAT!”

    (* We just paid him a lot to put his picture on the jar!)

  13. says

    It took me a while during my adolescent period to work out that most people did indeed lack the critical thinking ability to weigh up different pieces of information. To this very day I earn my income doing problem solving what others simply can’t do. People outsource their thinking to supposed “experts” because they lack the mental tools to do it themselves. The look of pathetic joy on their faces when they’ve found their guru (e.g. me) is a sad thing to behold. People like that have to be given a series of instructions which if all goes well may get them to the correct answer. I can’t seem to be able to teach them how to think.

  14. bmiller says

    I’m not sure what he says is that wrong….just….banal and even trite!

    As is my comment, derp de derp

  15. Owlmirror says

    I’m still not sure that “Deepities” is being used correctly in the title — again, the original definition says:

    a deepity has (at least) two meanings: one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true. To the extent that it’s true, it doesn’t matter. To the extent that it matters, it isn’t true.

    On the one hand, I think that bmiller is closer, in that some of what is quoted might be called “banalities”. I’m thinking of “vagueosities” or “pseudoprofundities” or something like that, myself.

    And the stuff quoted from Reggie might be better called “word salad” or maybe “sonorous nullities”.

  16. says

    Owlmirror@#17:
    I like “vagueosities”.. And “sonorous nullities” is pretty good too. I think “word salad” is too simple for what Reggie’s dishing. Perhaps it’s “baked word casserole”?

  17. Owlmirror says

    I just thought I’d add on the phrase used to describe what Kellyanne Conway apparently does when asked direct questions: verbal fog (although I see that “turned on the verbal fog machine” was used in 1990 to describe something President Bush (the Elder) did).

    Which got me thinking of other types of deliberate obfuscation, thus: verbal ink-cloud.

    And also: The Politician’s Song

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