We shouldn’t assume that we know other people’s motives and character based on limited data (and it’s almost always limited)

I have a long and very important letter to write today (I haven’t been this nervous about writing something since college), so I’m going to keep this relatively short, but I did want to write something, at least.  It’s on a subject that troubles me quite a bit, that apparent tendency—at least on social media—for people to act as if they were telepathic or clairvoyant regarding other people’s motives and thoughts.

It happens so easily, and probably without much thought (probably without much ill-intent).  We see a post or declaration, or a political or social statement, and we infer from it all sorts of things about the source’s character, intentions, and morality.  It’s remarkable that we imagine we’re so good at such interpretations, since most of us very rarely have any idea what our own motivations and deeper thoughts are.  It’s apparently true that often we can recognize by facial expression and body language how our friends and colleagues are feeling more clearly than they recognize it themselves, but this is broad and crude.  Recognizing that someone is sad or angry before they realize it themselves doesn’t give us any reason to think we know why someone is sad or angry.

Yet if a person posts a meme supportive of the Second Amendment—or conversely, one supportive of stricter gun control—those who see this meme often seem to draw far-reaching conclusions, straw-manning the person and their supposed motivations.  The sharer must be a right-wing, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-government bigot, say; or alternatively, they must be a “regressive leftist,” communist, SJW, crusading vegan, who wants to emasculate all men.

How many people in the world would meet those descriptions accurately?  There are probably a few—there are a lot of people in the world, after all, and the Gaussian is broad.  But surely, most people don’t honestly fit into any such broad stereotypes.

Of course, maybe I’m making my own error by guessing that people perform such acts of unwarranted attribution based on limited statements and data.  Maybe I’m straw-manning the people online.  Certainly, there are many to whom I’m being unjust—or would be if I were thinking of them.  But mostly, I’m thinking of the people who respond to trolling and counter-trolling, and the ones who take part in internet-based debates that rapidly, or immediately, degenerate into name-calling matches of which most six-year-olds would be ashamed.

I wonder how people can feel comfortable engaging in such interactions on a regular basis.  Perhaps the anonymity, or pseudo-anonymity, of the online world helps people let slip their baser natures more easily.  We are free from the subtle cues of body language and expression that, as I stated above, give us a sense of how our interlocutor feels.  Also, the nearly-automatic echo-chamber effect of social media tends to reinforce our sense of identity as a member of a particular group, and that leads us to be more inclined to react to perceived outsiders as enemies—this is probably both defensive and a matter of “virtue-signaling,” or what would probably be better understood as tribe-signaling.  We are declaring to those in our tribe that we are members in good standing, and thus should remain welcome.

A similar phenomenon might be behind why a lot of people, many of whom don’t honestly subscribe to the tenets of their stated religion, continue to go church (or mosque, or synagogue, or whatever) on a regular basis.  They demonstrate not their actual beliefs, but that they are committed members of the tribe.

This is, I suppose, often relatively harmless.  But it is anathema to honest discourse.  And it’s only through honest discourse (as far as I can see) that we can come to an ever-improving model of the world, to come nearer to truth and understanding.  We can see how tribalism and partisanship, a reflexive judgmentalism and name-calling, has poisoned much of our political system, creating deadlocks even in a government currently dominated by a single political party.  Nothing gets done—or at least very little does—when those involved are just trying to demonstrate their “virtue” by assailing those on the other side.  At least, it seems like that’s what they’re doing.  Maybe I’m misjudging.

I don’t know what the fix for this tribalism is; it seems to be something innate in the human character.  But it’s surely not the only thing, or we would never have created modern civilization.  Perhaps a place to start, a small step, would be for us to try to curtail our instinct to lead or to respond with accusation and insult.  If we think we know someone else’s motives, we should stop and think again before believing ourselves.  If we want to bring a point of criticism to their attention, instead of reflexively spewing, “It’s gross!  It’s racist!” we might start by saying, “I don’t know what your intentions are here, but when you say something like that, it comes across—to me at least—as racist.  Is that what you wanted?”

I don’t know if that will work better or not, but I’d love to see the experiment tried on a large scale.  In the meantime, remember, just because you infer something doesn’t mean that it was actually implied.

Tweets and memes on complex themes

Okay, well, I’m feeling under-the-weather today, so I’m not sure how good this post will be, but I wanted to maintain my recently-instituted policy of writing at least one post per week, on Sundays, so I’m going to charge forward.

I had a hard time deciding what to write about today, given the above problem; I have a list of many one-to-two-line ideas for blog posts in my cell phone (I jot the ideas down there when they occur to me, and come back to them later when deciding what to write), and I chose to stick with something simple, but which I consider important.

The topic is a pet peeve of mine about Facebook-style memes relating to political and social issues, and it involves the poor quality of reasoning one often sees in such posts.  Obviously, a meme—or a tweet—is not going to be the ideal medium through which to convey detailed and careful reasoning on any deep subject, which is why I write blogs, relying on language rather than eye-catching pictures designed to trigger an emotional response (see last week’s post to read what I think of relying on emotions to decide important matters).  But memes are often disappointingly lacking even for what they are.

The meme that caught my attention today consists entirely of words, with no underlying picture, but still demonstrates the problem I see in so much of modern discourse.  It’s a meme I’ve seen before; it starts by detailing the consequences that might be met by a person illegally entering North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran.  Then it introduces a strawman-style, exaggerated statement about the many benefits available to illegal immigrants in the U.S., and concludes with something along the lines of, “No wonder we’re a country in so much debt,” which is almost—though not quite—a complete non-sequitur.

This meme blatantly shoots itself in the foot by comparing the United States’ immigration policy—in clearly intended unfavorable light—with that of three of the most benighted and oppressive regimes in the world today.  Is this really expected to convince anyone, or to sway a reader’s thinking?  I suspect that even most conservatives, toward whom this meme is likely directed, wouldn’t consider North Korea, Afghanistan, or Iran to be role models on the national or international stage.  Why on Earth would anyone bring them up for such a comparison?  I almost suspect that this meme was made by a troll from the Left, intended as a caricature of Right-wing arguments, but it was shared, with all apparent earnestness, by someone who is clearly conservative.

It would have been much better—more effective in getting an argument across, and possibly even thought-provoking—if the poster had compared our immigration policy to that of, say, Canada or Japan.  These nations are modern and high-functioning and enact at least some policies which we might consider better solutions to specific problems than those we apply in the U.S.  I’m not making the argument that their situations are the same as ours, nor do I mean to start a discussion about the benefits and detriments of their policies relative to those of the United States.  I’m just saying that citing those examples would probably have been a more effective means of eliciting actual thought on the matter, even from those who might lean to the Left.

I’ve quoted a conservative post above because it’s the one I last encountered, but I find similar dubious posts—often even more egregious in their seeming manipulativeness and illogic—shared from Left-leaning sites such as “Occupy Democrats” and “The Other 98%”.

Memes—and tweets, even with their now-doubled character-length—seem to be the ultimate distillation of the lamentable phenomenon of “sound-bite as news”.  I’m not broadly against Facebook, Twitter, et al.  I use both social media platforms.  But they are rarely venues in which to gain or to share deep arguments about complicated problems (at least, they’re rarely used that way, though they do occasionally produce high quality discussion).  They could, however, easily be venues in which honest thought is at least provoked in someone who reads a tweet, or a meme, perhaps leading such a person to investigate some matter more thoroughly than they had in the past.  They can also link to articles and other sources that further explore interesting issues.  Unfortunately, as far as I can see, they are usually used for coarse, ham-handed virtue signaling and name-calling.  I’m not sure how often a given person changes his or her mind in response to being insulted; in my experience, it almost never happens in real time, at the very least.  This is likely especially true when the quality of the call-out is so logically faulty and ill-conceived as memes like the one I reference above.

Reality is messy.  Most issues are complex.  That’s the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves.  This shouldn’t surprise us; we ourselves are ridiculously complicated Rube Goldberg machines cobbled together over the course of eons from the spare parts left lying around by prior biology.  That anything works at all is probably more a testament to the brutally sharp and ruthless character of natural selection (at all levels) than it is to any clever or efficient design of the systems we have put in place.  Given this, it’s going to be a rare case indeed in which a single picture with overlying words (and not very many of these) is going to capture, or meaningfully contribute to, any debate about substantive issues.  Any such simple solution or argument is a low-hanging fruit that likely would have been plucked long ago, if it were available.

Such tweets and memes, in many cases, seem simply to serve as virtue signals, calling out to others of like mind with the sharer.  If that’s all you want to do—to display your tattoos on the prison rec-yard so you can be welcomed into the gang most likely to protect you—then I suppose that’s fine.  But if you want to try to understand, and to spread understanding of, complex scientific, social, or political issues, with an eye toward fostering improvement in society and civilization, then you’re going to have to do more work.  At bare minimum, you should try to make your memes as honest and as rational as you can and to maintain that policy in choosing the memes you share.

Otherwise, you might as well just stick to sharing jokes and picture of kittens.  The latter, at least, usually tend to improve the moods of those who see them…and that may just make them ever-so-slightly more considerate and less reactionary in their own posting.

It’s a place to start.

Stop respecting emotions so much

I’ve said it before in other venues, but it bears repeating:  as a society, we need to stop giving so much respect and deference to emotions.  I’ve gotten push-back on this idea before, but it’s really not that radical, nor that negative, a proposal.

I’m not recommending that we abandon emotions altogether (if that were even possible), or try to suppress them, a la the Vulcans in Star Trek.  Emotions are a real, and significant, part of the experience of life.  Everyone has them, and they are interesting and important.  I don’t want to deny the validity and reality of any person’s emotional experiences, nor to dismiss the real pain and joy that emotional reactions can entail.  The human experience is an emotional one, and emotional states can be useful in many ways.  Joy over a success can lead one to try to repeat it in the future.  Outrage over injustice can drive a person to act against it.  Fear, as Gavin deBecker has eloquently pointed out, can protect us from real danger, which still exists in the world despite all our advances. Continue reading “Stop respecting emotions so much”

Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us

I don’t know how often most of you notice the occasional noises of Flat-Earthers online, and particularly on social media, but I notice.  Encountering such absurdities can at times lead a reasonably educated person to feel that the world is going mad, that society is collapsing, and that—despite the cornucopia of information available to us—humans are breathtakingly stupid.

However, I’ve recently been reading John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” and it gave me a new insight:  The fact the we encounter such vociferous and seemingly ridiculous expressions of contra-factual ideas is a sign of the health and strength of our discourse, rather than its deterioration. Continue reading “Flat-Earthers and “hate speech” are good for us”

Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.


*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.

Odds are we should teach probability and statistics

probability

Among the many educational reforms that I think we ought to enact in the United States, and probably throughout the world, one of the most useful would be to begin teaching all students about probability and statistics.  These should be taught at a far younger age than that at which most people begin to learn them—those that ever do.  Most of us don’t get any exposure to the concepts until we go to university, if we do even there.  My own first real, deep exposure to probability and statistics took place when I was in medical school…and I had a significant scientific background even before then.

Why should we encourage young people to learn about such seemingly esoteric matters?  Precisely because they seem so esoteric to us.  Statistics are quoted with tremendous frequency in the popular press, in advertising, and in social media of all sorts, but the general public’s understanding of them is poor.  This appears to be an innate human weakness, not merely a failure of education.  We learn basic arithmetic with relative ease, and even the fundamentals of Newtonian physics don’t seem too unnatural when compared with most people’s intuitions about the matter.  Yet in the events of everyday life, statistics predominate.  Even so seemingly straightforward a relation as the ideal gas law (PV=nRT, relating the volume, temperature, and pressure of a gas) is the product of the statistical effects of innumerable molecules interacting with each other.  In this case, the shorthand works well enough, because the numbers involved are so vast, but in more ordinary interactions of humans with each other and with the world, we do not have numbers large enough to produce reliable, simplified formulae.  We must deal with statistics and probability.  If we do not, then we will fail to deal with reality as accurately as we could, which cannot fail to have consequences, usually bad ones.  As I often say (paraphrasing John Mellencamp) “When you fight reality, reality always wins.” Continue reading “Odds are we should teach probability and statistics”

What is it with gravitons and black holes?

I occasionally wonder about what physicist really think regarding the hypothetical particles, gravitons, those carriers of the gravitational force mandated by the need* to quantize all the forces of nature.  Specifically, I wonder how they behave in and around black holes.

I know, from my understanding of General Relativity, that the influence of gravity travels at the speed of light, and the recent LIGO results, and all other experimental results of which I’ve heard, are consistent with that.  This must surely mean that the proposed gravitons travel at the speed of light, and are thus mass-less particles.  And if they are carrying a force, they must have some form of inherent energy, which means that, according to Einstein at least, their path would be affected by gravity.  This seems contradictory in some ways, but it’s my understanding that the electrical force produced by a moving electron also acts backward on itself, so I guess that’s not completely unreasonable…though here I’m veering further away from any deep knowledge, much to my sorrow.

My real question applies to the surface of an event horizon, that boundary in space-time within which all things are separated from the outside by the strength of the gravitational force – more particularly, according to Einstein, by the degree of curvature of space-time.  If gravitons are particles, carrying the gravitational force, are they constrained by the effects of the event horizon, or –  presumably because they wouldn’t be self-interacting – do they simply pass through it, it being irrelevant to their motion, unlike all other things with finite speeds…which means everything.  That sometimes seems contradictory to me, though by no means am I certain that I’m thinking correctly about this.  Could it be that the gravitons within and outside of an event horizon are two separate populations of gravitons, with the external ones somehow being generated at the horizon?  If not, then how can a particle ignore the degree of gravity, unless, of course, as a mentioned above, they are not self-interacting – which wouldn’t be unusual, since, if I understand correctly, photons also don’t interact with other photons.  But photons would, obviously, interact with gravitons, of course, otherwise they wouldn’t be effected by gravity, as we know they are…the most extreme example of this being at a black hole.

I know that a possible explanation for this might be found in M theory, in which we exist in a 3-brane that floats in a larger, higher-dimensional “bulk,” and that gravitons, unlike all the more “ordinary” particles are not constrained to remain within that brane, but can go above and below it, so to speak, thus bypassing any barrier that is exclusive to the brane.  But I don’t know if this really deals with the issue.

And, of course, how can the idea of gravity as a force, mediated by a quantum particle, be reconciled with the convincing and highly fruitful model of gravity as the consequence of the curvature of space-time?  Obviously, I don’t expect anyone to know the deep answer to this question, since it’s the biggest, most fundamental problem in modern physics:  our two best, most powerful theories of the world don’t work when brought together.  But if anyone out there has any idea of at least the form of such a possible reconciliation – i.e. do proponents of quantum gravity think that it will eliminate the notion of curved space-time, or do they think, somehow, that it will be an expression thereof – I would be delighted to hear from you.  My best reading to date on things like string theory hasn’t given me any real insight into the possible shape of such a unification.

Anyway, these are some of the thoughts that are troubling me this Monday morning.  I’d love to know any of your thoughts in response, or if you have any recommendations on further study materials, I would welcome those as well.


* due to the Uncertainty Principle, among other things.