Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers and comments that I link to. Movie reviews and reports and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

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Lilla: THE ONCE AND FUTURE LIBERAL

THE ONCE AND FUTURE LIBERAL: After Identity Politics (Harper, 2017) is by Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, and is much more explicitly about politics than most books I read. (Because my concerns extend far outside the relatively narrow realm that divides the political parties in the US.) But it links to the previous books reviewed in its reaction to the current president.

And it’s a critique about the side I’m on, and I need to know where or if my side needs to improve. It’s a theme that’s become common; Francis Fukuyama has a recent book on this subject called IDENTITY, and the theme is a recurrent refrain in David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times, where he expresses regret at the loss of common American values of community. (Which I don’t think ever existed, in the MAGA formulation, precisely because the population of the US has become more multicultural and inclusive of anyone other than heterosexual Protestant white families.)

Summary:

The author’s thesis is that liberals have ‘abdicated’ their traditional role of leading the country, despite notes of ‘resistance’ to Trump and his right-wing media complex. The basic reason is that liberals have become the party of identity, wherein recognizing differences is more important than finding a unified set of values. [I’ll give him that point – it’s hard to win elections without having some kind of unifying set of values for the electorate to rally around.]

He considers the past century or so as having been formed by two ‘dispensations’ – the first was Roosevelt’s, which set a tone and set of expectations that lasted until the ‘60s disrupted them; and then Reagan’s. Despite changes in presidencies, these two eras are distinct. One was about shaking hands; the other about a rainbow. Neither side now has any common goals; they live in caves. Compare the homepages of the Republicans – a list of values – and Democrats – a list of constituencies.

It *should* be about shared citizenship. The liberals need a new orientation.

P21. Recalls how it felt when Reagan was elected, denying the malaise detected by Carter. And then in ’89, when the Berlin Wall came down. Reagan’s themes were about self-reliance, building wealth, the free market, and that government *was the problem* — i.e. the individual, the entrepreneur, was the most important element of society. This trend got worse under Clinton; Republicans became hysterical, shutting down the government, impeaching Clinton for trivia, and became even worse under Obama, reacting to the recession, and giving the likes of Glenn Beck audiences for conspiracy theories.

P59. Liberals responded largely by retreating to the universities. The original American identity was to both country and church. With the civil rights movements, personal identity became more important. Images from the 1950s—suburbs, traditional families—led to early ‘60s ‘identity crisis’. It was a political romanticism, 71b, the search for meaning, that everything connects.

And so in universities, both students and curricula focused on personal issues – not wider ones, not engagement with the world. Personal brands became important, the Facebook model.

And the locution “Speaking as an X…” as if one’s identity as an X made one immune from criticism or argument. There was no objective basis for discussion. [ The latest book by Jonathan Haidt, with Greg Lukianoff, which I haven’t read yet, The Coddling of the American Mind, seems to be precisely on this topic. ] At least Marx looked at the big picture, the historical forces, p92.

P99. Now neither side has a political vision of American destiny. Liberals have an opportunity under Trump, but are sabotaging themselves by the continued focus on identity. It could be a ‘reset moment.’

Author offers four lessons: about institutional vs. movement politics (i.e. it’s about winning elections); the priority of democratic persuasion over self-expression; the priority of citizenship over personal identity. And the need for civic education in an increasingly individualistic nation.

Thus: Black Lives Matter is not the way. Most voters are clueless—Trump’s followers are mobs, not citizens who could pass a citizenship test. Both sides now actively undermine the idea of citizens.

And so: passion and commitment, knowledge and argument, curiosity about the world outside your head and about people unlike yourself. Willingness to sacrifice for fellow citizens; ambition to imagine a common future.

\\
Now if only he dared image what that common future might be – what would make both sides happy? Harari’s humility might be a step…

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Gladstone: THE TROUBLE WITH REALITY

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time (Workman, 2017) is by Brooke Gladstone, co-host of a syndicated radio program, “On the Media,” that I occasionally hear on my NPR station. The book is small, 91 pages with sources, published as a chapbook-sized paperback. It overlaps Kakutani’s book in some of its themes and its occasional references to science fiction – which, of course, is frequently concerned with the nature of reality.

Summary:

Asking the existential question, what is reality?, she quotes PKD: “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” P3. Note that PKD quote goes on, about he creates fake realities for a living, and about how society today creates fake realities and fake people.

Fake reality begins in the head. It is your umwelt, what the individual perceives, a small subset of the world, the bigger reality of which is called the ungebung, p6.

We necessarily live in a world guided by stereotypes, including the one about progress; an attack on them shakes the foundations of our world. William James describes how accommodating a new idea is done as minimally as possible. How the brain reacts. Le Guin quote: learn which questions are unanswerable, and don’t answer them. Defer judgment.

P19, Neil Postman’s book, and his contrast of Orwell and Huxley [also cited by Kakutani]. Orwell seemed spot on; but Huxley seems to have prevailed. Milton thought truth would prevail; thus Jefferson and the 1st amendment, the idea that the press could provide enough information; but later James Fenimore Cooper found the press to be about making mischief.

There are four criteria for a demagogue: they pose as a mirror for the masses; they ignite waves of emotion; they use that for political gain; they break the rules that govern us. P27. Trump wrote as much in The Art of the Deal. Trump didn’t seem to qualify, until he ran for president, mirroring the masses and breaking the rules.

Was his rise a conspiracy, by the Russians? While conservatives are usually more inclined toward conspiracy theories, liberals seem more inclined to believe the Russia story. Trump presented that mirror, to make America great again, rousing emotion, and demonizing various groups. He flouted the law, and common values. Those values included the idea that most citizens participate; that those who are indifferent don’t matter, the lumpen.

Trump’s values are that nonwhite and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. [Despite the evidence that majority of attacks in the past couple decades in the US are by far-right white men.] And so he struck a bargain to his supporters: he would lead them, and they would believe whatever he would say.

P47, Lying is the point. The barrage of lies; both Trump and Putin. Steven Bannon understood. Without a consensus about facts, politics is a raw power struggle between the weak and the strong. Thus Trump discounts all facts, the investigations, the media. The war on media, the ‘enemy of the people’. Negative news is fake news. His epithets against his rivals.

–So, how is reality recovered? P60. Self-deception will undermine him. The press erred in not taking him seriously. The old scripts for political news, e.g. that in return for quotes the press would omit certain juicy facts, vanished. But the press is recovering. George Lakoff describes the taxonomy of Trump Tweets: preemptive framing; diversion; trial balloon; deflection. The solution is not to dwell on them.

And so what do we do. Protests are good, but don’t answer the question.

Author indulges in a long description of Gulliver and his interactions with the Laputans and the Houyhnhnms.

Author claims that her facts reflect the world as it is; Trump’s do not; and author cannot conceive of his world. But we admit that our facts are incomplete. We only know our own facts. Facts are real and will reassert themselves eventually. The real world will catch up with us. Even if we cannot see that real world.

And so we might try to see the reality in that other person’s eyes. And that begins the end of our reality problem.

\\

Thus ends my summary; the book gets a little vague at the end. I would characterize it as: recognize that none of us knows all the facts, and so we can’t apprehend complete reality; but that there is a reality out there, which will catch up with us, especially those whose ‘facts’ belie reality.

And I reflect that there is apparently *always* a portion of the public inclined to follow demagogues, the portion given to group/cult thinking, a portion that always exists within the range of human personality types and moral tendencies. I read recently how even when Joseph McCarthy was defeated and humiliated, some 30% of the public still supported him. And some will always support Trump. This aligns with the famous quote, “you can fool some of the people all of the time…” But perhaps it’s simply not about alliance to reality; it’s human nature to function within a bubble, to align with one’s group or community, which as long as it survives, is indifferent to reality. Until it bites back and kills them.

Again, politics is mostly about struggles between rival groups, and rarely is about response to reality.

And the swings between which faction is in charge from year to year may be due to random circumstances. It’s likely never, as winners like to claim, because the populace has endorsed the winner’s agenda.

Still, there is an arc to history, — evidently. The evidence is there.

Posted in Book Notes, Morality, Politics | Leave a comment

Kakutani: THE DEATH OF TRUTH

Michiko Kakutani’s THE DEATH OF TRUTH: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump (Tim Duggan Books, 2018) is, remarkably, the first book by the long-time and influential book reviewer for the New York Times, now retired. It has extensive notes (citations) and a list of additional sources, but no index.

Questions going in: does she suggest how we recover? And whence his supporters?

Ways to recover? Not many suggestions; it’s not the subject of the book. She mentions, at the close, citizen action, and protecting the branches of government, education, and the free press.

The subject is the analysis of how we got here. It’s a combination of the American tradition of anti-intellectualism, the cultural relativism of the 1960s and postmodernist attitudes on the left (now co-opted by the right), and a cultural narcissism also arising in the 60s. The rise of right-wing media propaganda in Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart, and others, feeding off their audiences worst fears. And of course Trump’s shameless, endless lies. And, yes, the internet, which makes all this worse, due to its anonymity and appeal to base emotions. (Incidentally notable are that chapter epigraphs include quotes by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Robert A. Heinlein.)

Summary:

Intro

The two most monstrous regimes in human century came in the 20th century, and both relied on ways of making people susceptible to lies and totalitarian rule. Hanna Arendt’s analysis sounds like conditions today, as we see similar ‘danger flags’ to use Margaret Atwood’s term. Now we have fake news, alternative facts, and now ‘truth decay’ p13.

How did all this happen? It’s not only Trump. There are deeper issues: the news media since the advent of Fox News; the rise of social media; and even, on the left, the rise of relativism in the 1960s.

Ch1, The Decline and Fall of Reason

Lincoln, in 1838, understood that the nation was founded on Enlightenment values. Yet there’s also been an irrational counterpart, a ‘paranoid style’ that reoccurs in waves: the Know-Nothings, Joseph McCarthy, and now the modern right, founded on grievance over changes that seem to be taking America away from them. How that Yeats quote has become so popular again; the sense that things are falling apart, 26t.

Trump followed the fringe right since the 1990s with paranoid fantasies about Clinton and Tea Party alarmists. Large percentages of Republicans believe things that are not true. Trump began his career by playing off false beliefs.

Trump embodies anti-Enlightenment principles, repudiating rationalism, tolerance, and empiricism, 27b, getting his information from partisan sources like Fox News and Breitbart. (Like Chauncey Gardiner.) Books by Jacoby and Gore trace these trends. Trump criticized the Iraq war, but learned nothing from it.

Larger attitudes in American society: Andrew Keen’s 2007 book; Tom Nichols’ 2017 book.

Trump relies on loyalty and reverse-engineering his conclusions for evidence, the very opposite of the scientific method, p37, and reminiscent of Orwell, whose 1984 has no word for ‘science’.

April 2017 saw the March for Science, in DC and around the world. Comment about how attacks on science are like turning off the headlights, and driving blind, p39.

Recalls memoir by Austrian Stefan Zweig of Hitler’s rise, and how no one then took him seriously, until too late. How the Nazis moved slowly, seeing how much they could get away with…

Ch2, The New Cultural Wars

Cultural relativism began in the 1960s, with ideas fashionable on the left, but has been co-opted by the right, ironically adopting attitudes seemingly counter to their firm stances on law and order. Post-modernism rejected the Enlightenment; it suggested that truth depended on perspective and cultural background, and every statement could be different interpreted, p47b. This led to some fine art, but also a steady loss of faith in institutions and official narratives. By the 1990s it seemed earlier cultural wars were over, but this was premature. They came back with hard-core rightists—Tea Party, birthers, evangelicals, white nationalists—in part reacting to Obama and his policies. Trump plays on all their fears. Now the right is indifferent to violations of decency and standards they ironically upheld in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This relativism is not the same as multi-culturalism, p53.

Postmodernist views of science reflected the ambivalence of the cold war: science as hawkish, pro-business, etc. Attitudes reflected in Orwell, who suggested there was no science, but German science, Jewish science, etc.

Postmodernism also emphasized the instability of language, with ‘deconstruction,’ the idea that all texts are complex and variable in meaning and can never be said to represent what the author meant to say, p57t. A scandal involving one supporter, Paul de Man, over anti-Semitic comments, was dismissed as merely being ironic; who could tell? Thus undermining the idea that any statement can mean anything, employed by Trump supporters who dismiss his outrageous claims as not being meant literally.

Ch3, “Moi” and the Rise of Subjectivity

Parallel with the rise of postmodernism was the advent of a culture of narcissism, reacting to the pace of social change, or perhaps as Tom Wolfe claimed, hedonism granted by increasing disposable income. The “Me Decade” and the rise of celebrity news, or subjectivity and the celebration of opinion over fact. Trump exemplifies this trend: three statements about how his feelings trump apparent facts, and Gingrich’s defense of how public feelings trump evidence of reality (about crime statistics).

This myopic tendency among Americans was noted by de Tocqueville, later exploited by Norman Vincent Peale, and Ayn Rand. Serious writers reflected this in literature that became self-conscious; Tom Wolfe wrote fiction in reaction, but not many followed. [[ science fiction, of course, can be seen as the very opposite of self-involved fiction about oneself. ]] Thus the rise of memoirs, and blogs, 69t, the James Frey scandal; no one really cared whether his book was memoir or fabricated.

Personal testimony became fashionable—even in biographies of other people.

This subjectivity has been exploited by those who “want to equate things that cannot be equated” p73.6, thus creationists who want to “teach the controversy.”

Trump did this with his “both sides” comments. Climate deniers, anti-vaxxers, all depend on this ploy, by attempting to manufacture doubt, as did the tobacco lobby in the ‘60s. The media has been irresponsible in promoting such false equivalence.

Some have reacted: stop inviting the cranks onto BBC, said one. Long quote from Christiane Amanpour, p76.

Ch4, The Vanishing of Reality

Epigraph by Philip K. Dick, from “The Electric Ant”.

Trump’s presidency represents a warping of reality, of the surreal, in which reality is stranger than fiction. Politicians have always spun reality, but Trump is worse, lying reflexively and shamelessly, lying to appeal to fears, p80, attacking news he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’. Trump used lies as a business tool; all that mattered was making the sale. Recalls PT Barnum, who relied on the willingness to believe, rather than whether something was a fact.

Borges, Gibson, Lem, PKD, Fellini grappled with similar theme; Borges’ Tlon about a fictional planet imagined by a secret cabal. And Pynchon, with themes of paranoia.

And “The Matrix”, exploited by the far right to imagine selling their own inside-out alternative reality. 86.6 Of conspiracy theories and fake news, on sites like 4chan and Reddit, internet bubbles that don’t just reflect reality, but shape it.

Ch5, The Co-opting of Language

Language is like water; we think and live in it. This is why Trump and other authoritarians coopt language. Again, Orwell, his Newspeak, satirizing the ‘wooden language’ of the Soviet Union, with tautologies, bad metaphors, and Manicheanism. Hitler, like Trump, was obsessed with speaking directly to the people, and subtly redefined certain words, p92, and how the Nazis were obsessed with the best or the most; any event had to be about the biggest elephant ever killed or the coldest water Napoleon fought in.

Trump uses words to mean the opposite of what they really mean, calling news fake, assigning nicknames based on the sins he is guilty of himself – lying, crooked, crazy – and how his administration bolsters these lies—to assert power over truth itself.

Similarly to 1984, Trump changes the past to suit the present; White House websites were revised to remove pages on climate change, etc.

And Trump’s incoherence – “his twisted syntax, his reversals, his insincerity, his bad faith, and his inflammatory bombast” p98.7 – are “a bully’s efforts to intimidate, gaslight, polarize, and scapegoat.” He’s more concerned about how he looks than what he says.

And his Tweets. His assault about ‘fake news’ have been picked up by other countries.

Eco on Mussolini: he did not have any philosophy, only rhetoric. Trumps echoes him.

Ch6, Filters, Silos, and Tribes

Arthur Miller on Bush. Growing divisions between political sides; each demonizes the other; they can’t agree even on the idea of college. People now seek out like-minded communities, special interests. Both sides are ideological; like sports teams.

The chief reason: the explosion of right-wing media, p110. Limbaugh in ‘90s, and his “four corners of deceit” and his charge of scientists as frauds, p111. Then came Fox News, Breitbart News, Sinclair Broadcasting and its Orwellian scripts; they all spin “truth-based content” into narratives that ratify their audiences’ worst beliefs or fears. Shameless, solipsistic, and insulated.

This is tribal politics, all about party loyalty despite evidence, p113. Reasons behind confirmation bias; how group dynamics makes it worse. Conservative Charles Sykes stepped away from his radio show and wrote a book called HOW THE RIGHT LOST ITS MIND; listeners simply rejected how conspiracies they believed in were “demonstrably false.”

There are no more common TV shows that ‘everyone’ watches; news sources and social media filters everything into silos, so it’s harder and harder to agree on facts.

Ch7, Attention Deficit

Gibson quote, from his novel ZERO HISTORY, p119

The world wide web was, in 1989, a noble project; it’s gone sour, due to its anonymity and posts that appeal to base emotions.

Fake news is mostly conservative [[ this is a key point – the conservative worldview is about retaining traditions in the face of the reality about the universe ]] and more pro-Trump than pro-Hillary. Trump’s hate-fueled messages were tailor made for social media; thus mob chants of ‘lock her up’. Targeted posts; Russian accounts; fake accounts, to deflect bad news about Trump.

It will only get worse, with fake video…

Ch8, “The firehouse of Falsehood”: Propaganda and Fake News

Heinlein quote about appealing to prejudices, from “If This Goes On”, p135.

Russia is at the center of much of this, following Lenin’s model of revolution—not to improve the state, but to smash it. One tactic is to simply lie; “ordinary morality does not apply to them.” [[ another key point about some conservatives; they excuse everyday lies because they believe they have a ‘higher cause’ ]]

Steven Bannon, too, wanted to destroy the state, p138.

Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offered simply solutions to complex problems, 139m; ends justify means. Hitler in Mein Kampf.

Hannah Arendt on how they gaslighted their populations, wearing people out, to cynicism. Propaganda isn’t about misinformation; it’s about exhausting critical thinking and truth, 143t.

Russian propagandist Vladislav Surkov described how it wasn’t so much about ideology, as about power and wealth. How there is no objective truth, inspired by Derrida, to undermine western ideas of truth and transparency. The goal was to replace the republic by a CEO…as predicted in comic books.

Ch9, The Schadenfreude of the Trolls

Quote from The Dark Knight.

In American, cynicism has been growing into a nihilism, “partly a sense of dislocation in a world reeling from technology change, globalization, and data overload…”

Trump is a symptom. His is a dog-eat-dog world; quote from his book. He defines himself by those he attacks, and relentless negativity. Republicans have followed suit, or lose donors.

There’s also a growing loss of faith in institutions, the respect for the rule of law, civility, 155m; that life is random and devoid of meaning. The Great Gatsby, et al, 156t.

Note again how fake news projects didn’t take with liberals, 156b.

This nihilism is shone in the writer who compared Trump’s campaign to the 9/11 flight: charge the cockpit or you die.

And how Trump and others dismiss their worst comments, as jokes. Daily Stormer: always blame Jews for everything, etc., claimed as self-deprecating humor in one place, true belief in another. 159.

There’s an echo here of deconstruction, also deeply nihilistic, as if the search for truth is futile. A kind of post-modern irony, like the 1980s ad star Joe Isuzu, and Rush Limbaugh.

Epilogue

Recalls Neil Postman, AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, 1985, considering BRAVE NEW WORLD and 1984, and that Huxley was prescient and Orwell applied to the Soviet Union. As it’s turned out, Orwell applies to us too, in Trump. It will take years to repair his damage, 168.

Washington’s farewell address anticipated this, warning against undisciplined men who would subvert the power of the people, and about foreign influences.

No easy remedies, but among them: the Parkland students who took action. Citizens must protect the institutions of our founders: the three branches of government, and two other foundation stones: education and a free and independent press, 172t. And Jefferson and Madison both made statements that support the need to find agreed-upon facts, without which there is no way to debate, or conduct democracy.

Posted in Book Notes, Conservative Resistance, Politics | Leave a comment

Levitan: NOT A SCIENTIST

Journalist Dave Levitan’s NOT A SCIENTIST: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science (Norton 2017) addresses a dozen or so kinds of mistakes that are typically behind any politician’s use of the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but…”, and illustrates each kind of mistake with two or three very-detailed examples – too detailed, perhaps, unless we take that to be the point of the book, his defense of these mistakes as mistakes. Thus there are 33 pages of notes, mostly citations, for just over 200 pages of text.

With some books it’s useful to formulate a question or two going in, if only not to lose track of what you think the book is about, in effect challenging the author to follow through on the promise of the title and subtitle. Here I had two basic questions. Are the kinds of mistakes here accidental (the way people commit logical fallacies without realizing it) or deliberate? And second, is this mostly about Republicans?

Answer to the first: author claims he doesn’t try to attribute motives to most of these, but in most cases possible motivations are obvious: maintain the status quo, protect the interests of big business, promote xenophobic or religious agendas.

Answer to the second: yes.

The topic here dovetails with the previously read book about experts, as well as the ideas of intuitive physics, that ‘common sense’ trumps anything science might reveal. The categories of mistakes here, of course, align to the various logical fallacies and mental biases we’ve read about in other books. But there’s a good dose of mendacity here too. In fact, this mendacity, which the author notes goes back decades, at least to Reagan, is a principal reason I’ve never had any respect for most Republican politicians, or those who support them.

Summary:

Foreword

There’s not a lot about Trump in this book, because it was mostly finished before his election. Also, “his errors on scientific topics are so blatant, so crude, so lacking in even the most basic understanding of physics or biology or chemistry or any other discipline that debunking them often requires essentially no effort at all” (p. x.4) In contrast to the categories of errors discussed in this book, his brand is FIREHOSE.

Intro

It began with Reagan in 1980, claiming “I’m not a scientist but…” and then opining that the sulfur dioxide from a volcano surely contributes more to the problem of acid rain that all the pollution from cars, etc. These days we hear similar claims from Rubio, Scott, Boehner, and McConnell. This book largely doesn’t try to attribute motives to these various mistaken claims. And yes, the “vast bulk” of them are from Republicans.

Ch1, Oversimplification

Examples: claims that a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks, when in fact various studies are nowhere near so specific; evidence ranges up to 23 or 27 weeks. Beware any such claim that can’t cite evidence.

Another: Christie on marijuana, stating flatly that it’s a gateway drug. Evidence is mixed and more complex; correlation is not causation, etc.

Obama: claiming that 2014 was the warmest year on record, when actually the reports claimed only a high probability that 2014 was the warmest. (This seems nitpicky, as if author felt compelled to include a Democratic sin or two, and this was the best, or worst, he could come up with.) A small matter perhaps, but any mis-statement gives critics an edge. (Thus his defense.)

Ch2, The Cherry-Pick

Inhofe and his snowball in congress, as if the one example of a cold day in DC somehow invalidated all the claims about climate change. This is anecdotal evidence. [ Or maybe, I wonder, Inhofe is just not very smart and thinks he really made a point; otherwise he thinks his audience is not very smart. ]

Author coins term TOADS to refer to climate skeptics/deniers to mean Those who Oppose Action/Deniers/Skeptics.

In fact, climate shift predict that record-setting high temps will outpace record-setting low temps by 20 to 1 by the middle of the century.

Cruz made a claim about there being a 17-year hiatus of rising temps, based on satellite data. This was a deliberate misrepresentation: satellite data are less reliable; other data don’t show the hiatus; and the specific claim (not 18 years or 20 years) is cherry-picking. (And the U of Alabama scientists who provide the satellite data are tied to climate change denial.)

And Palin citing one glacier that’s growing, not shrinking. In fact, many others are shrinking, and it’s understood why rising temps might cause some to grow: because shifting patterns of rainfall and snow might land on certain glaciers.

Ch3, The Butter-Up and Undercut

Cruz: praises NASA in congress before mentioning he wants to cut their budget for climate research. He was wrong in his claim that NASA’s mission didn’t involve the atmosphere—it’s right there in its founding statement. And he implied that the budget was somehow limited, that spending on climate research somehow deprived spending on space science. Further, the launch sites in Florida are in fact endangered by rising sea levels. And he was wrong to imply that space science is somehow ‘harder’ than atmospheric science.

Avian flus: GW Bush and the NIH, claiming funds to fight avian flus while in fact cutting the NIH budget over the years.

Ch4, The Demonizer

Mo Brooks claiming that illegal immigrants bring diseases, such as measles—fear-mongering. He also suggested that children from these other countries were less well-protected from disease that Americans. In fact, ironically, many of those countries have better vaccination rates—because Americans are still scared by the debunked Wakefield study supposedly linking vaccines to autism (or opposed to vaccines for other vacuous reasons). Such bad info remains on the internet for people to find…

Ben Carson made similar claims, as does Trump to defend his wall.

This is an old technique. Pat Buchanan made similar claims about immigrants and exotic diseases; but the data show incidental actual cases.

And OK senator Don Nickles wanted to limit HIV-positive immigrants, in the 90s. These sentiments to back to the Immigration Act of 1917, with its long list of maladies (idiots, imbeciles, etc.) that foreigners were supposedly prone to.

Ch5, The Blame the Blogger

There are good and bad internet sites, of course. Some politicians are not shy about citing dubious sources.

AL congressman Gary Palmer made a claim about manipulated climate data…based on a blog post by a hobbyist with no expertise in anything; yet somehow the Telegraph picked up the story and called it “the biggest science scandal ever.” It wasn’t; it was about homogenization of data from various sources, like having four thermometers in your kitchen and adjusting the data from the one sitting in the sun.

Santorum, challenging the claim that 97% of climate scientists agreed that rising temps are caused by humans, based a site called Fabius Maximus by a group of retirees, not climate scientists, who chewed a set of data about probabilities and certainties to try to undermine the 97%. Santorum misrepresented their analysis.

Cruz and others have cited 1970s articles about global cooling, as if the scientists can’t make up their minds. But there were only two popular magazine articles about it, and the author of the Newsweek article has distanced himself from those claims. Climate science has progressed since 1975.

Then there are the covert videos that purported to depict Planned Parenthood as profiting from fetal tissue – Fiorina, Rand Paul, Rick Perry all promoted this, though that practice is not illegal, and the videos were highly edited. Fiorina’s characterization of the videos in a 2016 was an outright lie, describing a scene that never existed. (Nevertheless, the controversy triggered a shooting attack on a PP clinic a couple months later.)

Ch6, The Ridicule and Dismiss

Huckabee, challenging Obama, that a beheading (the threat of ISIS et al) was greater than that of a sunburn (climate change), which completely mischaracterizes the nature of climate change.

Tom Coburn and his ‘WasteBook’, cited by Rand Paul to ridicule studies on fruit flies – when in fact fruit flies have been used for decades to make advances in biology that later apply to human treatments.

Goes back to Proxmire (a Democrat from Wisconsin) with his ‘Golden Fleece’ awards.

Ch7, The Literal Nitpick

A claim made with careful wording to imply more than the specific case cited. Inhofe’s claim about fracking, technically correct on a specific point, but used to fight back against regulations against the entire process of drilling oil and gas wells, p119.

Another: the DEA’s claim (in the Obama administration) that marijuana was in no way medicinal, implying that smoking it is the issue, when actual research focuses on the active ingredients, which do, it seems, have medical benefits.

Ch8, The Credit Snatch

Politicians who try to take credit for things that happened ‘on their watch’—even though they’re the result of policies set forth by their predecessors. [[ 2018: Trump taking credit for the economy, currently. ]]

Rick Perry taking credit for environmental gains that were the effects of policies from 1990, and the fact that Texas has a lot of wind. In fact, Perry brings lawsuits against EPA, and prays daily against the EPA, 131t.

Christie, 2015, resisting cap and trade policies but taking credit for solar power use – an effect such ‘market-based solutions.’

Bush in 2008, bragging about his environmental record that was actually the result of technological progress and actions by states.

Ch9, The Certain Uncertainty

Again, usually about climate change, politicians who claim that nothing should be done because we don’t yet understand the problem fully. (They didn’t stop jumping to conclusions in the case about fetal pain.) “We don’t know everything; therefore we should do nothing” p150.3; author compares this to a doctor refusing any cancer treatment until cancer is fully understood.

Bush in 2000: need a “full accounting” “before we react”

Jeb Bush in 2015: “it’s convoluted” and to say science is decided is “just arrogant”

In fact, much evidence is very clear.

Rubio in 2015: he *can* be certain that taking actions against climate change “would have a devastating impact on our economy” – whereas, in fact, the cost of taking no actions will have far higher costs; he’s simply wrong.

Reagan made similar arguments about acid rain in the ‘80s.

In 2007 a Texas rep argued against the HPV vaccine as an “experiment” on young girls; whereas in fact it was well tested. You get the impression these arguments aren’t about science, but about ideology that prefers business or abstinence.

Ch10, The Blind Eye to Follow-Up

Politicians who cite outdated or debunked studies, when they should know better. Science does march on: in 1949 lobotomies seemed reasonable, but no one would cite those studies today.

Obama cited the benefits of the study to map the genome, but should have cited a later study that gave more conservative returns. (Too many details!)

Climategate: a misinterpretation of emails that was studied and found without controversy, yet still cited as some kind of scandal, by Palmer, Inhofe, to intentionally mislead.

And Frankenfish, a FMO salmon, opposed by two Alaska senators not so much for health concerns as for the threat to the wild salmon industry; actually there had been 2 decades of studies showing them safe, and as farmed fish, there was no competition.

Ch11, The Lost in Translation

Santorum misrepresented, or flatly misunderstood, statistics about the risks of mercury in fish by claiming the study targeted pregnant women who consumed six pounds of fish per week. It didn’t, but Santorum was against mercury standards. The chain of confusion goes back to a Wall Street Journal piece based on two CATO Institute studies that got conflated.

And Rand Paul ridiculing an EPA case in 2015 in which a Mississippi man was sent to jail for “putting dirt on his own land.” In fact, he had filled in wetlands and built housing, which was dangerous because septic systems are unreliable and leak in swampy areas.

Ch12, The Straight-Up Fabrication

Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape.”

Ben Carson’s claim that straight men go into jail and come out gay, that therefore being gay is a choice. No evidence.

Huckabee claiming that one volcano blast contributes more to global warming that 100 years of human activity. Not by a million percent. (And anyway, volcano blasts tend to cool temps, not raise them.)

Michelle Bachman, 2011, with an anecdote about how an MMR vaccine caused mental retardation; similar anecdotal claims by Rand Paul, and Trump.

Conclusion, The Conspicuous Silence

A bonus error is this, as when President Reagan said nothing about HIV and AIDS for some six years after the crisis began.

Things have changed slightly; in 2012 Obama and Romney each answered, in print, questions about science policy. And then in 2015 Obama said in a speech, “Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities…” and so on. Which perhaps might shame everyone else from using the “not a scientist” defense to mislead or misunderstand.

Posted in Book Notes, Politics, Science | Leave a comment

Nichols, THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE

Tom Nichols’ THE DEATH OF EXPERTISE: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford, 2017) is one of the better in the batch of recent books I’ve read about current events and how they reflect issues of science and human nature. Nichols is a professor and former aide in the US Senate, with several previous books on Russian and nuclear policy. (Also – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Nichols_(academic) – he’s a five-time Jeopardy champion, and member of the Never Trump movement, who left the Republican party after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh.)

Again, my notes on this run over 3000 words, and I’ll post them here, with a paragraph summary on the reviews page.

Preface

The US is proud of its ignorance, in ways that are unlike the traditional dislike of intellectuals. People resist learning and yet have firm opinions about everything; they not only dismiss expertise, but do so with anger. It’s a kind of narcissism, an exercise in self-actualization.

Perhaps there was too much deference to experts in the past; experts got us to the moon, but also into the Vietnam war. Yet now people hiss at eggheads and believe themselves as smart as everyone else.

This book grew out of a blog post, at The Federalist.

Intro

Quote by Asimov about the cult of ignorance in America. [I have this on my Quotes page]

Recalls AIDS denialists in the early ‘90s, ideas picked up by the president of South Africa, leading to absence of proper treatments and 300,000 lives.

Americans have strong opinions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite not knowing where it is on the map; in fact, the greatest support for military intervention was from those who knew the least.

These are dangerous times. People reject rules of evidence and principles of argument. We may be witnessing the death of expertise itself: “a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.” P3.3

We get celebrities opining about vaccines or medical treatments. It’s not that experts don’t exist; it’s that people no longer engage with them. Recalls Robert Hughes [his book Culture of Complaint, I think], 5m, in which Americans are skeptical of authority and prey to superstition.

What can we do about it? The usual response is to blame the internet, and that’s partly true. But it goes beyond that, in ways that may even seem a kind of progress: knowledge is no longer secrets guarded by experts, as was true decades ago when most people never finished even high school. Yet the danger is that Americans think they are as smart as everyone else; the opposite of education.

He outlines the book, pp7-12.

Ch1, Experts and Citizens

We all know know-it-alls who have opinions about everything (e.g. a character on Cheers); now everyone is becoming like that, and this is a bad thing, because society functions by a division of labor and a reliance on experts and professionals, p14.6. Heinlein was wrong in his famous quote about how “specialization is for insects.”

Is this really new? Democracies have always been open to new ideas. Alexis de T noted how Americans were self-reliant and distrustful of authority, in 1835. Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1930 (about his own country) that the average reader reads not to learn, but to pronounce judgement if the writer does not agree with something already believed.

This self-reliance gradually fell away, as technology and global society expanded; as Richard Hofstadter wrote, in 1963, how Americans were dependent on devices he doesn’t understand, with an attendant resentment of those who do.

But is this really a problem? No one needs to know everything. The problem is hostility to knowledge. Not just among yokels; vaccine resistance is high even in wealthy Marin county. This is dangerous; another example of the fad to consume raw milk, despite the dangers, even by some master chefs. The CDC fought back, and was ignored.

Some would say, experts have been wrong before, so why listen to them now? Because even being wrong on occasion, they are far more often right.

Low-information voters result in policy debates among ill-informed people “who all manage to be wrong at the same time” 25.6. Examples: ignorance about ACA, about how taxes are spent, about how much goes to foreign aid; popular opinions about these are way off.

So what are experts? In general, “experts are the people who know considerably more on a subject than the rest of us, and are those to whom we turn when we need advice, education, or solutions in a particular area of human knowledge” 29b.

But there are typical specific criteria:

• Credentials: evidence from peers that they have achieved a particular level of competence, e.g. university degrees
• Natural talent, or aptitude. Not everyone with a degree can perform as an expert.
• Experience. Those who’ve survived in their fields and use their experience to apply to new problems, even instinctively.
• And self-policing: evaluation and correction by other experts. Peer reviews, board certifications, and so on.

Still, even experts who aren’t the best in their fields are better than you – e.g. the average dentist pulling a tooth. They may make mistakes, but far less likely than a layperson, and they learn from the mistakes they make. Self-trained experts are rare. You can’t become an expert by reading a book a month, p38t.

Popular culture fuels romantic notions of how common people might outperform experts – Good Will Hunting. But these are unrealistic. Both experts and laypeople are human, and share similar problems….

Ch2, How Conversation Became Exhausting

Like the Monty Python skit. Frankly, some people just aren’t too bright. But don’t realize it – this is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, identified in 1999; people overestimate their own skill or knowledge to a degree that’s proportional to their lack of skill or knowledge. They lack a skill called ‘metacognition.’ P45. In one study, participants claimed familiarity with various technical terms, including some that were simply made-up, p46t.

Another issue is confirmation bias, with examples from Rain Man, which blends into issues of innumeracy (Paulos) and fears of flying, and AIDS hysteria. At the same time, this is a feature, not a bug; people can’t analyze every situation from scratch, and instead rely on what they already know. Scientists struggle to overcome this (note how this tied to Bayesian analysis). Example, the gay marriage study—people wanted to believe the conclusion, so didn’t examine the evidence as they should have (the author of the study made it up). This is why scientists conduct peer reviews. While ordinary people often made claims that aren’t subject to confirmation, i.e. they are nonfalsifiable. And most people are unaware of the nature of the scientific method, with its cycle of hypothesis, testing, and analysis. So why isn’t common sense good enough? Because common sense only works in day-to-day matters. Common sense told us the sun went around the earth. P54.

Superstitions and conspiracy theories rely on confirmation bias, and some of them are harmless, e.g. not walking under a ladder. Conspiracy theories though are complicated, with every new bit of evidence somehow taken to be in support of the conspiracy. A good rule is Occam’s Razor, to prefer the simplest possible explanation; but conspiracy theories are popular, as in historical events and popular novels by Robert Ludlum. They’re attractive because they seem to make sense of an otherwise complicated world; and they appeal to a streak of narcissism involved, and a preference not to believe that life is random and the universe uncaring. They can be attractive to entire societies, as after traumatic episodes of history. Currently many Americans believe in secret cabals or mind-control technology, 59b. And they’re impossible to refute.

Generalizations are common, and at the root of science, while stereotypes are pernicious. Generalizations are testable, but they are not explanations. Stereotypes are conclusions.

Another factor is that people are generally deferential, being social creatures, even when wrong. It’s impolite to point out when someone is wrong, or to acknowledge that some people aren’t as bright as others. This isn’t a good situation for identifying facts. People tend to fake cultural literacy, as a means of preserving self-image. We interpret events based on our own self-definitions, e.g. causes of unemployment. And this applies to both sides; Haidt: “almost everyone finds a way to stick with their values and reject the evidence” 69.3 Both sides have occasion to reject science.

Is education the answer? No, it’s part of the problem.

Ch3, Higher Education: the customer is always right

Higher education, those magical 7 years, are part of the problem, wherein students learn that the customer is always right. [they do?] This is largely because so many people attend college these days, compared to before WWII. Universities fail to teach students how to recognize expertise, including critical thinking. Students no longer get a ‘college education’; they ‘go to college.’ Students become clients. But there are too many students, and too many ‘professors’ and too many ‘universities’ (many that were once just community colleges), so that education is no longer their mission.

Rather, college is no longer a challenging experience; it’s client-centered, where ‘universities’ are desperate for students and cater to their needs, where students expect to be affirmed, and where getting low grades is the teacher’s fault!

These come about because of overprotective parenting; because of affluence, that enables students to mount up debts, and enables them to make numerous campus visits even before applying, making decisions about which place to attend based on things like the dining hall experience. And so students are emboldened to make curriculum demands, e.g. to abolish a course on English poets because they’re all white European males. Where students ask help on Twitter, and are outraged by being corrected (e.g by an expert on Sarin).

Email – and students assume they can email their professors anytime, undermining the deference professors would expect of their students. The idea of what students owe their teachers, p86-7, is obsolete. P88

Too many universities are generic, out of competition among them, and so many of them offer postsecondary degrees that the worth of these degrees is diluted. Every school offers ‘gut’ courses, and is caught in the grade-inflation trap. There’s really no solution for that.

P96 Student evaluations

P98, College is not a safe space; demanding that they be so surrenders intellectual authority, as emotion trumps all. Example of Halloween costumes at Yale in 2015. And so we have “the bizarre paradox in which college students are demanding to run the school while at the same time insisting that they be treated like children.”

[[ Feb 2019: more recently there’s an entire book on this theme: THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt ]]

Ch4, Let Me Google That for You: how unlimited information is making us dumber

The main culprit of the death of expertise is the internet. There is the answer to anything. Various laws: Godwin’s, about Hitler; Pommer’s, about a person changing from having no opinion to having the wrong one; Skitt’s, how any message correcting an error will have another error itself, p107. And Sturgeon’s law. Anyone can post anything, and answers are superficial—if not fake.

Everything is fake; the fact checkers can’t keep up. And bad news stays online for years; examples, e.g. Allen West.

P115, Safe. There are industries in misinformation; Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP. Robert F. Kennedy Jr on vaccines. Experts do make mistakes, rarely; but they get disproportional publicity. The internet is like a vanity press, and surfing leads to unwarranted confidence of knowledge. People don’t read whole articles; they browse headlines; society is dumbing down.

P122, Wisdom of mega-crowds. Sometimes crowds rather than individuals are better at estimation, or at detecting problems, like Dan Rather’s report about Bush’s military record. Wikipedia is another example, but one that shows the limitations of this trend: most contributors are hobbyists, and there are more extensive entries about games and porn stars than about e.g. female novelists. Its best articles have high standards – like peer-reviewed scholarship – but that rarely works. The ease of updating undermines the authority of experts.

P128, Unfriend. On the internet we associate with people like us, and not with others. There is less diversity, and the illusion of egalitarianism, when everyone has a blog or webpage. AO Scott; Andrew Sullivan—too much democracy, 130b. (“keyboard courage” that allows people to say things they would never say in person).

You can try to comment on false claims, but this brings on the backfire effect. Best not to respond at all.

So, do journalists do better?

Ch5, The “New” New Journalism, and Lots of It

Yes the press makes mistakes: how chocolate is good for you; a piece on Vox about a Palestinian bridge; a mischaracterization of Easter by the NYT; Time thinking Evelyn Waugh was a woman. Others from years ago. The paradox now is, there is more news, but people are actually less informed. P138

How did this happen? Technology, and capitalism. There’s too much of everything (more TVs, more news shows), and too much news is close to entertainment.

It all goes back to radio. When FM was formed to offer better sound, AM became interactive, with talk radio and phone calls, that enabled this challenging of authority and broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh, undermining traditional sources of news. Liberals, oddly, weren’t attracted to the format, while Limbaugh would attack “government, academia, science, and the media” as the “four corners of deceit.” He and his like (Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity) routinely run stories of outrageous rumors that are never retracted.

The next step was cable TV, and the 24-hours news cycle, inspired by the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979; ABC created Nightline, running around the clock – with so much time to fill, their guests often undermined expert reporting. Then came CNN in 1980, then C-SPAN, HLN, and in 1996 Fox News, hosted by beauty queens. Politics became entertainment.

All of them have some kind of bias, 154…

Trust no one: author has given advice to students about consuming news: follow the papers, watch at least two networks; read one journal with which you consistently disagree, p155. Oddly, The Daily Show is one of ‘most trusted’ news sources. The variety of sources allows people to pick and choose whatever confirms their existing beliefs, 157, and yet still distrust the information they receive.

159, are viewers smarter than the experts? Author thinks journalists, for the most part, know what they’re doing. Even as standards have fallen; how younger journalists think it’s just like blogging. Ironically, it might have been better when journalists weren’t experts, but rather high school graduates. Younger people now don’t have the energy to research a complex story, like GMOs, 161. There is lack of basic knowledge, like where countries are, or the statistics behind the Rolling Stone hoax story, or the misunderstanding of statistics behind veteran suicides, 166.

What is to be done: Experts: learn to say no; don’t have an opinion about everything. Consumers: be humble, less cynical, more discriminating, outlined p168.

Ch6, When the Experts Are Wrong, p170

Stories of the claim that discrimination against the Irish was a hoax; it wasn’t. That eggs were bad for you; experts changed their minds. That the Soviet Union, in ’82, would not collapse. Experts can be wrong, but we have no choice: we’re shocked by their failures because they’re so rare.

Several kinds of failure. One is not being careful with the ordering process of science. (And some mistakes can have beneficial effects.)

Or, extending their expertise to other fields.

Or, trying to predict (what the public wants) rather than explain.

And most extreme: deliberate fraud.

When they go bad, 179: punishments do exist for misconduct. Ward Churchill, who compared 9/11 victims to Nazis; Andrew Wakefield. Most misconduct is dull. The gold standard is replicability, yet ½ of psychology experiments couldn’t be. [[ reason for this not mentioned: the easy stuff has already been discovered ]]

Maybe some studies are inherently unreproducible; the study itself was rebutted. Many require interpretation.

Outright fraudsters include Michael Bellesiles, in a study about guns, who apparently invented his sources; David Barton, whose book on Jefferson was retracted.

It’s important to realize that no single study has such a wide impact to cause irreparable harm.

188, the assumption that expertise extends. Celebrities are the worst. In 1985 three actresses were invited to speak before Congress…because they had played farmers wives. Lately we have Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, Linus Pauling and vitamin C, Jenny McCarthy and vaccines. Helen Caldecott, a pediatrician who pretended expertise on nuclear weapons. Chomsky on everything.

It’s a paradox that the public mistrusts experts, yet pays attention to their opinions on everything.

Predictions are a problem, since experts aren’t necessarily very good at it. Asimov quote 197t, “Gee, that’s funny.” Taleb identifies the ‘black swan’ problem. Tetlock in 2005 made a study of expert predictions, 201m, and found that ‘foxes’ outperform ‘hedgehogs’, because the latter have difficulty extending their narrow expertise to other fields. Lessons…

205, repair. We might need fewer ‘popularizers.’ Watch their track records, cf Tetlock. B Russell: the public should exercise skepticism and humility.

We need to balance the ego of experts with the narcissism of laypeople who think they can ignore them…

Conclusion, Experts and Democracy.

Experts have been dismissed in emotional issues like Brexit, and how Trump thinks he doesn’t need any. Recall Trump’s siding with birtherism, antivaccines, Scalia’s death as a murder, Cruz’ father in JFK. His ignorance on the nuclear triad. And many people simply don’t care. His support came from the uneducated; the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. Yet why would such voters believe the ‘elites’ were conspiring against them? In part because of the behavior of those politicians, as when they assume the public is too stupid to understand. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the citizens of the US.

Our democracy depends on division of labor, which leads to the creation of professions. Dictatorships work less well because they extract expertise by threat. (Footnote about a Trek episode: Nazis were not more efficient…)

216m:

The relationship between experts and citizens, like almost all relationships in a democracy, is built on trust. When that trust collapses, experts and laypeople become warring factions. And when that happens, democracy itself can enter a death spiral that presents an immediate danger of decay either into rule by mob or toward elitist technocracy. Both are authoritarian outcomes, and both threatens the United States today.

Susan Jacoby identifies an arrogance among Americans about lack of knowledge; they are becoming anti-rational, moving back toward folk wisdom and myths passed by word of mouth, 217.4 [[ like flat earthers! ]]

218, keep in the mind the distinction between experts and policy makers. There are five misconceptions about the influence of experts. They are not puppeteers; they cannot know how leaders implement their advice; they are unable to guide a policy from conception to execution; they cannot know how much of their advice leaders will take; and they can only offer alternatives, not choose values.

Republic, if you know what that is 225: most people don’t. We’re a republic, not a full democracy. Many are uninformed, and the most poorly informed are those most dismissive of experts, 227b. Example of Jimmy Kimmel and man on the street questions. Many people cannot find Syria, or Ukraine, on a map.

As good as you, 231. Democracy means political equality – not actual equality, a confusion which leads many to think that “I’m just as good as you”. Example from Lewis’ Screwtape Letters; it’s a notion that can lead to the death of democracies.

234, revolt. Can’t avoid ending in pessimism. Many professionals seem fed up, ready to give up. Some, like medical doctors, are fighting back. Yet author thinks this may end in disaster, a war or economic collapse. Americans can rally themselves, but they always slip back into complacency. Andrew Sullivan on how elites still matter, p237.

Without experts to serve democracy, and laypeople to accept their reality, unfounded opinions will rule and anything and everything becomes possible—including the end of democracy and republican government.
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Dispositive, 130.8 –dealing with the settlement of property, or disputed territories.

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Personal comment: My take is that the vast majority of people live out their lives without thinking about big issues at all. In a fundamental sense, as I’ve said, it doesn’t matter to most people whether the earth goes around the sun, or vice versa; they live their lives and create the next generation. The truth is out there, for those attentive enough to pay attention. It’s not necessary to educate the masses. If the masses make bad decisions, reality will strike back, whether through resurgence of diseases, or climate change, and the survivors will eventually learn.

Posted in Book Notes, Conservative Resistance, Culture | Leave a comment

Levitin: A FIELD GUIDE TO LIES

Daniel J. Levitin’s A FIELD GUIDE TO LIES: Critical Thinking in the Information Age (Dutton, 2016) is a nice complement to the book previously reviewed. Levitin an academic at UC Berkeley and has written three previous books, including This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession (2006).

Most of the content here is familiar from easily available material about how statistics can be misleading and about issues of very basic epistemology, i.e. how to evaluate the world and know what is likely to be so. Though he uses the words “believing things that aren’t so” he has no mention or references to Thomas Gilovich or Michael Shermer, who’ve written books on related topics.

The book is fairly casual, with many good examples of the points it summarizes. It easily could have been longer. It covers many issues that I first read about in a college textbook, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, that remains for me the granddaddy of all books about logical fallacies and mental biases in politics and culture. (Blog post about that book)

Levitin’s book includes a glossary, notes, and index. Rather than summarize generally, I’ll just post my chapter by chapter notes, even though some topics are here only mentioned.

Part One, Evaluating Numbers

Quoting Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Page 3, Plausibility

Examples of statistics that fail basic plausibility, e.g. a salesperson made 1000 sales a day. Pays to stop and think if the claim is remotely plausible, let alone correct.

Counting pregnancies not births. A Fox News chart that adds up to way over 100%.

P11, Fun with Averages

Mean, median, mode. Examples of meaningless averages. 18b the ecological and exception fallacies. Examples involving life expectancy, and shifting baselines.

P26, Axis Shenanigans

Axes that are unlabeled, or truncated to exaggerate a claim by hiding the context. Example, another Fox news chart p29. Examples of crime rates, home prices, double Y axes. Notorious chart put up in congress about Planned Parenthood, to imply abortions far outnumber cancer screenings (the villain is a Republican of course), p40.

P43, Hijinks with How Numbers are Reported

Cola sales by themselves may not tell the story; it’s more about market share. Or if sales drop, show a chart of *cumulative* sales instead—Apple did this, p48.

One can find unrelated correlations, e.g. drownings and Nicholas Cage movies, p49. Deceptive illustrations, p52.

Framings issues, e.g. water usage s/be per acre or whatever. Better to use proportions.

Beware extrapolations that lead to nonsensical results, e.g. coffee cooling.

Precision v accuracy. Comparing apples to oranges. How to display birth rates by state, using different sized bins, p68ff.

P75, How Numbers Are Collected

People collect numbers; they don’t just appear.

Sampling: must be representative. Example of how to sample pedestrians in San Francisco. People aren’t always honest. Be aware of margin of error.

Sampling bias: led to famous wrong prediction that Landon would defeat Roosevelt. Thus the Gallup poll.

Sometimes it helps to disguise the purpose of a poll; to account for non-responses; to account for biases in reporting (what people say isn’t necessarily what they do).

Standardization, measurement error, definitions: of rain, of the homeless.

P95, how to ask political polls; everyone will gripe. And how to realize that some things are simply unknowable, about how many suicides were gay, or how many readers a magazine actually has, p96. [[ points like these are much more crucial than most items here ]]

P97, Probabilities

Different kinds: classic, as in a die with six sides; frequentist, as in an experiment with a drug; and subjective, as when a person estimates his likelihood of doing something. These can be confused, e.g. weather forecasts. Combining probabilities involves multiplication. Some are conditional, and can be confused by prosecuting attorneys and juries.

Visualizing: a fourfold table can help portray conditional prob’s – this is Bayesian thinking, to see how results change as conditions change, e.g. about breast cancer. These conditionals do not work backwards, e.g. p115.

People are uncomfortable with statistics and graphs, and some information is confused, deliberately or not.

Part Two, Evaluating Words

P123, How do we know?

We discover information ourselves, or acquire it implicitly, or are taught it explicitly. There are skills we can learn to help analyze claims, skills that should be taught to 14-year-olds, p124.2.

Recall Twain epigram again, p125. Did Twain really say it? Author relates the details of tracking it down.

P129, identifying expertise

First ask what is their authority. Experts can be wrong, but are more likely right than nonexperts, 131.4. definition p130. Expertise is often quite narrow. Work is peer reviewed. Experts are recognized by prizes and grants.

Be aware of source hierarchy – some are more reliable than others, e.g. major newspapers compared certain websites like TMZ.

137, website domain: .gov or .edu or org likely more reliable than .com. Ask who’s behind a site; some are deliberately misleading (another Republican example p140).

Institutions can be biased. Also can look at who links to a page, p143.

Certain journals exercise rigorous peer review, as do textbooks and encyclopedia; not so much claims by food companies, say.

Beware out of date webpages, or stories that have been discredited but remain available. E.g. Trump’s discredited claims.

Some people copy information and claim it as their own.

Some make citations in footnotes that don’t actually support their claims (most people won’t look).
And beware confusing terminology, e.g. incidence vs. prevalence of a disease, p149.

P152, Overlooked, Undervalued Alternative Explanations

Beware assuming a cause or outrageous claims that might have ordinary explanations. This applies to magicians, fortune-tellers, and so on, 153.

And claims about ancient astronauts, etc.; what is more likely.

Some claims are missing control groups, e.g. that listening to Mozart increases a baby’s IQ. The real explanation was that boredom temporarily decreases it, 158.

Cherry-picking and selective windowing bias the data toward a particular hypothesis. Beware the gambler’s fallacy…

Small samples are usually not representative, and statistical literacy misleads in tricks and red/white cards, p167.

P168, Counterknowledge

This is misinformation packaged to look like fact, such as celebrity gossip or pseudo-history, including many conspiracy theories. Consider 9/11: what’s the probability of the various claims that 9/11 was a conspiracy; a handful of unexplained anomalies does not discredit thousands of other pieces of evidence.

Reporters can mislead; some report what one expert says, better ones will interview more than one. Different than breaking news mode, where news is gathered from eyewitnesses. These can be confused.

Perception of risk can be skewed when ordinary risks are not reported, e.g. drownings, while unusual ones are in the news. [[ the standard availability bias ]]

And association can mislead, as in an argument about bottled water, 176.

Part Three: Evaluating the World

P181, How science works

We are all human with imperfect brains, and there are some scientists who are frauds – examples include Andrew Wakefield.

It’s a myth that science is neat and tidy, that scientists never disagree; and a myth that a single experiment ever settles anything. What counts is the meta-analysis, the results of many experiments, to reach a consensus, with attendant risks about samples.

Deduction and induction; the syllogism; how a syllogism can be true even if the premise is false. ‘Modus ponens’ p186, with three variations: the contrapositive, the converse, the inverse, p188-89.

Sherlock Holmes did *abduction*, making clever guesses from specifics to conclude another specific, to a degree of likelihood—but not logical certainty.

What we call ‘arguments’ are premises, or evidence, with conclusions. Example of a deduction about maternity wards and how mortality rates went down not because of initial hypotheses, but when doctors washed their hands.

P198, Logical fallacies

Illusory correlations, as when you get a phone call from someone after just thinking of them. You don’t consider all the times that didn’t happen, or how many people there are in the world…

Framing probabilities: chance encounters on a vacation.

Framing risk: need to look at rates, not absolute numbers, about plane crashes or immigrant risk. [[ politicians play up specific anecdotes to undermine this ]]

Belief perseverance is that we have a hard time letting go of a belief despite evidence to the contrary; we maintain allegiance to low-fat diets, or the link between autism and vaccines, p207.

P211, Knowing What You Don’t Know

Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. Uncovering unknown unknowns is the principal job of scientists: “The B-movie characterization of the scientist who clings to his pet theory to his last breath doesn’t apply to any scientist I know; real scientists know that they only learn when things don’t turn out the way they thought they would.’ P213.2

Fourfold table, p214. It’s the unknown unknowns that are the most dangerous.

P216, Bayesian Thinking in Science and in Court

Scientists update their confidence in ideas based on new evidence; they move from prior probability, of a hypothesis, to posterior probability. Unlikely claims require stronger evidence. Examples from forensics.

Technically, it’s not true that a person is innocent (prior prob of 0); it’s always some tiny number, based on the possible number of perpetrators in a city, say. Example of fourfold table of guilt based on a blood match…

P222 Four Case Studies

Rather lengthy examples of:

  • The author’s dog, who made have had cancer;
  • Whether the moon landing was faked, p229, with reference to Rocketdyne;
  • Whether David Blaine’s stunts are real, p231, with mentions of James Randi and Peter Popoff;
  • And of the universe, its layers of particles, and whether Higgs is really the end.

P251, Conclusion: Discovering Your Own

Recalls Orwell’s 1984. Experts vs. the anti-science bias in public discourse, when we need expertise to make critical decisions. Also an anti-skepticism bias, in which people figure if it’s on the internet, it must be true. We all must apply careful thinking… We’re better off knowing a moderate number of things with certainty, than a large number of things that might not be so, 254.

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Ariely: PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL

Dan Ariely’s PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Harper 2008) is one of the earliest popular books that summarizes various findings of experimental psychology in recent decades that reveal the biases of human nature.

Key point: traditional economics assumed that people are rational individuals. But in fact, humans are not only irrational, they are irrational in predictable, systematic ways.

The thirteen chapters explore examples, in the Malcolm Gladwell mode of telling stories and drawing conclusions (though without much underlying interest in the mechanisms that explains *why* we behave like this, e.g in terms of evolutionary psychology; there are other books for that). Here’s one bullet per chapter summary.

  • Everything is relative: how subscription forms plant decoys, or surveys anchor with photos of handsome students or houses. We make choices based on comparisons, not by any absolute standards. How to control this? Reduce the circle of comparison. Realize that the more we have, the more we want; so consciously reduce one’s expectations.
  • The fallacy of supply and demand. How to increase the demand by simply raising the price. People imprint on the first idea they see: anchoring. The initial anchors can be arbitrary. Thus: realize that life decisions may be based on ‘arbitrary coherence’ – contingencies, randomness. And so question such decisions. And: “a free market based on supply, demand, and no friction would be the idea if we were truly rational. Yet when we are not rational but irrational, policies should take this important factor into account.” P48.
  • The cost of zero cost: it’s fun to get free stuff, and so Amazon sales boomed when they offered free shipping, and cars sold better with deals for free oil changes. So apply this to social policy: make wise preventable measures free.
  • The cost of social norms. We’re happy to do things, but not when we’re paid to do them, e.g. working for a cause rather than for cash. Fining parents for being late to pick up their kids made the problem worse, because it removed the social obligation factor and reduced it to a cash transaction. So: Education might be enhanced by switching to social goals, rather than focusing on taking tests. Example of Burning Man, and its gift exchange economy.
  • The influence of arousal. We take greater risks when aroused or angry, confirmed in psychology tests. So: take this into account in advance; carry condoms, even if pledging to say no; don’t drive or make decisions when upset.
  • The problem of procrastination and self-control. Over and over again experiments show that people put things off – even when allowed to set their own deadlines in advance! Solutions: force commitment in advance, e.g. regulations to enforce health checkups; how auto makers bundle maintenance into periodic service checks. [Everyone does this now.]
  • The high price of ownership – why we overvalue what have. An experiment with basketball tickets given by lottery; once the winners had their tickets, how much would they take to sell them? Vs. how much would those who didn’t get them pay to get one? The former valued them much more. When we have something, especially if we’ve put work into it (like assembling Ikea furniture) we value it more. Similar comments about ownership of ideas, and why we’re reluctant to change our minds; ideologies. (No cure for this, except to try considering transactions from the POV of a non-owner.)
  • Keeping door open – why options distract us from our main objective. Examples of choosing a major, or a boyfriend; we’re reluctant to commit when many options are available. Solution: start small, close some doors, and move on. The consequences of not deciding at all can be worse in the long run.
  • The effect of expectations – why the mind gets what it expects. How opposing fans watching the same game interpret it very differently. How taste tests turn out differently when products are described beforehand, or afterwards. Caterers and advertisers know this; it’s called priming. Solution: consider both sides of a conflict without knowing who’s on which side.
  • The power of price. How various surgical procedures have been revealed as mere placebo exercises. (It’s apt to realize that *all* early medical procedures – eye of newt, etc. – relied on placebo effects.) Prescriptions drugs vary in effect on how they are described and priced. If placebos work, why not enjoy them? Because they drive up the cost of health care.
  • The context of our character – why we’re dishonest. When given a chance to cheat, everyone cheats – but just a little. Experiments show that when reminded of the 10 commandments – or any other ethical standard, like a professional oath – people cheat less. Professions were de-regulated in the ‘60s, and has led to declines in standards. What to do? Perhaps practices like signing a code of honor will actually lead to better behavior. [ Matthew Hutson describes this as one of his 7 laws of magical thinking, in a book whose theme is that you can be aware of these effects *and still employ them* to lead to better behavior. ]
  • The context of our character part 2 – why dealing with cash makes us more honest. Students take Cokes left in dorm refrigerators – but not dollars from a plate of cash. Cheating is easier if it’s removed from actual money. Thus complex financial schemes enable corporate misdeeds, e.g. Enron. Upton Sinclair, quoted p227: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” This is a problem because cash is going away in the modern economy, and schemes like airline frequent flier miles and credit card interest rates, all very abstract, make cheating easier.
  • Beer and free lunches – what is behavioral economics, and where are the free lunches? When people in a group place their orders in a pub, they are affected by the orders of those who spoke first – not to be the same, but to be different, to the point of not ordering what they truly want, out of a ‘need for uniqueness’.

This final section concludes how we’ve seen how economics is not about rational decisions. So shouldn’t economics be about how people actually behave? Here’s the free lunch: do we take these recognitions of irrationality and recognize them as opportunities to improve? Page 243:

If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction of our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality.

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Keen: HOW TO FIX THE FUTURE

Andrew Keen’s How to Fix the Future (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018) is a breezy book in the Thomas L. Friedman mode, as the author travels the world speaking to various experts, and describing his trips and circumstances as he goes. P109b: “I am having afternoon tea with the writer Parag Khanna in Singapore’s Goodwood Park Hotel. …” He even chats with Uber drivers, just as Friedman chats with taxi drivers. (Ch 9)

Keen has written several earlier books, including The Cult of the Amateur (which I read back in 2007) and The Internet is Not the Answer, and this new book is one of a genre by alarmists and futurists worrying about the impact of the latest technologies. There have always been books warning about the latest technologies – for centuries, since the first print books, since radio, since TV — so I came to this book a tad skeptical, needing to understand what he thinks the problems are, and his solutions would be.

And so, it’s a decent book. Obviously there are issues about how the Internet is affecting our world, our social interactions. (But these are changes; are they necessarily bad? Some people think any change is bad.) The book’s strengths are its appeal to historical examples and how they have been solved by the five tools he describes and explores at length; and his appeal to Thomas More’s Utopia, of 500 years ago, and how its ideals might be realized in the 21st century. The epigram is long quote from Thomas More’s Utopia (which becomes a running theme through the book).

So with a title like this, what does the book claim are the problems that need to be fixed?

The early chapters identify the problems — briefly, as if common knowledge. Industry withering, inequality, unemployment, cultural malaise, etc. By both elites and populists there is resentment. Reactionaries want to destroy the new order; idealists believe technology will fix everything on its own (cf. Kevin Kelly). Author sees the issues similar to those of the Industrial Revolution. He states that only people, not tech, can fix problems.

He contrasts Moore’s Law, from 1965, about the doubling of processing power in silicon chips every eighteen months, with [Thomas] More’s Law, the lesson of his Utopia: Our duty is to make the world a better place. (He mentions that 8 of the 10 goals of the Communist Manifesto have been reached, all by themselves.)

The answer to these problems is not free-market libertarianism — the attitude of Silicon Valley — but rather five tools:

• Regulation
• Competitive innovation
• Social responsibility
• Worker and consumer choice
• Education

These techniques have been applied before to solve problems, as in the meat-packing industry a century ago, and the food industry from the mid 19th century to the early 20th, p49.

His travels take him to Estonia, one of the most internet dependent countries in the world, with electronic ID cards and complete transparency so that people trust the government, because you always know who’s accessed your data. (In contrast to Putin’s post-truth philosophy, wherein Russia’s chief role is the manufacture of fake news.)

And to Singapore, whose goal is to create a ‘Smart Nation’ in which everything is connected. The focus is on intelligence; a post-privacy world. With a social credit system, where good behavior is rewarded and the untrustworthy are punished – very 1984.

(I especially appreciated these sections, because so much of the US media, and popular opinion in the US, treats the rest of the world as irrelevant, as if nothing important could be discovered or learned outside the most exceptional country on the planet, which of course is the USA.)

The balance of the book examines the five tools, in detail. About regulation, he visits Brussels. On innovation, he recalls Corvair and Ralph Nader and how regulations since then have reduced auto deaths by 80%. About social responsibility, he visits the ethics of Silicon Valley – ruthless businessmen, not unlike Carnegie and past business tycoons – and visits the Kapor Center, in Oakland (https://www.kaporcenter.org/). On worker and consumer choice, Century City and artist strikes, ad blockers, Uber drivers. And on Education: the idea of a Universal Basic Income, Rutger Bregman, and wondering, what are humans good for? Humans, unlike smart machines, can handle ambiguity, and have intuition. He visits Palo Alto High School, whose famous instructor Esther Wojcicki trains students to think, not follow instructions. Trust the kids.

And the book’s conclusion is about ‘our kids’. The left/right division has given way to nationalists vs. globalists, with the young disproportionately on the progressive side. And he anticipates how epochal changes happen: “nothing, nothing, nothing… and then something dramatic.”

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Lightman: SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE

Alan Lightman is the best known of the three authors reviewed today; he’s published numerous books before, including the novels EINSTEIN’S DREAMS and THE DIAGNOSIS, as well as numerous volumes of essays, out of all of which I’ve only read a couple. SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE (Pantheon, 2018) is a book of linked essays, or reminiscences, on the themes of science and religion and the yearning for meaning. Several sections are inspired by his summers on an island off the coast of Maine, watching bugs, hummingbirds, looking at the stars. So there’s an E.O. Wilson naturalist’s flavor here.

It’s a book of lovely writing, wise reflection on the protocols of nature and science, and mushiness about how the evidence of reality isn’t ‘meaningful’, and how there must be something *more*.

The first longish section is called “Longing for Absolutes in a Relative World,” and contrasts the scientist’s materialist views with what he says is the allure of Absolutes: “ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred.” These are ideas that have been around since antiquity, and cannot be proved or disproved, he says, though some have been given up, e.g. the notion that the Earth is not fixed.

–My reaction, that I wrote down at the time, only 17 pages in: Hopelessly mushy. What he’s really describing is the way our human nature relies on and imagines such ideas, even when as he admits they don’t exist in the simple-minded way the ancients believed, let alone in the sophisticated way we currently understand the universe. He’s too preoccupied by what those ancients (and later in the book various classics authors) supposed; we are now in a position to know better, and identify the reality our biased human nature isn’t inclined to perceive. Yet humanity in its aggregate really does learn new things, verifiable new things, even as only a very few pay attention.

Returning to a summary. He ponders how there must be more than “Just atoms and molecules”. [Why? My favorite analogy is that he doesn’t make the same argument about how the greatest books in the world can’t be merely arrangements of just 26 letters; where does the wisdom come from? There must be something *more*.] He recalls Galileo, Aquinas, Kepler, Bruno, Emily Dickinson, Lucretius.

He cycles back and forth: he understands how humans feel the need to see patterns, and that any claims from prophets be subject to the experimental testing of science — but then claims that “the transcendent experience is the most powerful evidence we have for a spiritual world.” [ Whose transcendent experiences, I wonder; those of any number of murderous psychotics one might cite? Transcendent experiences are irreproducible anecdotes, not evidence. ] He describes the central ‘doctrine’ of science but then claims there are realms in which that doctrine does not apply. How does he know? The Central Doctrine must be accepted on faith, he says. No, no, no; it’s not faith, it’s confidence, based on all the evidence to date, and always subject to revision. But, like Gould in the previous book, Lightman *wants* there to be something more.

And so on. He wends his way through Starry Night, Einstein, how we’ve deduced there are billions of other planets. He reads the Harvard Classics, Augustine, Kierkegaard, discusses the expanding universe, the multiverse, fine-tuning. (Again, overlapping topics with the previous two books.) The multiverse would be an Absolute.

He ends with a relatively homely anecdote about connecting with his kids via Facetime, pondering Homo techno and Bacon’s New Atlantis, and (Harari-like) speculation on human cybernetics. Why do people resist the idea of evolution, he wonders; species chauvinism. And the sacred books, which so many cannot let go of. Anything humans do is natural. The dignity of our species may be the final Absolute.

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A frustrating book. Like the maundering of a wise professor who is lapsing into self-indulgent senility. The book can be taken as an example of how naive human perception of the universe persists despite the rigor of logic and evidence. He may as well be arguing for the simplicity of belief in a flat earth, because it’s easier to understand, more comforting.

At best, this is a nice walk-around of modern ideas about how science works and what humans have learned about the universe as observed through evidence; and how, in counterpart, these revelations upset the ways humans have understood their surroundings as projections of human biases and values.

The classics of that Harvard bookshelf offer deep insights into the naïve way humans have viewed the world. They are historical artifacts. They do contain, in fact, many deep insights — into human nature (I especially recommend Montaigne). But to need to take them into account now, to assess our best understanding of the world and the universe, is like asking freshmen for their opinions to give them equal weight to the learned professors.

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P.S.: On page 15 Lightman cites sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund about how 25 percent of scientists at elite universities believe in God. No; Jerry Coyne has debunked this. Ecklund is funded by the religiously motivated Templeton Foundation, and she is biased toward simplifying a range of results into bins that most support its mission. Here’s an example: Ecklund and Long: Scientists are totally spiritual. An object lesson in how to ask a question and how to tally the results, and motivated reasoning. (Others)

Similar comments could be made about Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga, whom Lightman cites on page 121.

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Gould: UNIVERSE IN CREATION

Roy R. Gould’s UNIVERSE IN CREATION: A New Understanding of The Big Bang and the Emergence of Life (Harvard, 2018) overlaps on a couple topics with the Adam Frank book reviewed previously. But.

Gould would like to claim that the universe has a ‘story’, a plan in its infrastructure of particles, forces, and rules (laws of nature), and this ‘building plan’ and its consequences suggest the universe is going somewhere; it’s trying to accomplish something (p5.6).

Many scientists have pondered such questions; is the universe guaranteed to produce intelligent life? Most have said no; this would be teleological. Or is intelligence necessary as an observer effect in physics? Author takes two approaches: examine the history of the universe to the present; and consider the properties of life especially since we know thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered.

And so author summarizes the history of understanding our local planets, their distances; the galaxy and its extent; the discovery that there are billions of others. The discovery of the expansion. Einstein and relativity and gravity. Dark matter and dark energy. The discovery in 1988 that the expansion is speeding up.

The laws of nature; if they were anything else, we wouldn’t be here. The fine-tuning problem. Several possible answers.

A brief history of the universe: how stars create elements; the emergence of life. And then the idea that life was built into the universe’s building plan.

–And here, in Chapter 11, the book goes off the rails. Where do the ‘applicants’ for evolution comes from? he wonders, and decides “In other words, we evolved a new feature because we needed it” p159. No no no!

He considers chance and predictability; information; the idea that physical sensations are the strongest evidence that life is written into the universe’s script. (How does this follow?)

He ends by claiming the universe “behaves as though it was a purpose” and that we “may” be fundamental to the universe’s existence.

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And this from an academic publisher! (I did notice that none of the three blurbers on the book’s back cover are people I’ve heard of.)

The author never makes an argument that there is some reason the universe’s ‘rules’ or laws of nature *have* to be this or that to produce life; he doesn’t even demonstrate how life would inevitably result, which would be a great claim.

He continually begs the question by referring to nature’s ‘building plan’ to imply intent, when there’s no reason to think other than we are in the one random universe that happened to have conditions that created life — by an accident that might as well not have happened — compared to others in the multiverse with conditions that would make our complex universe impossible. It’s a book of wishful thinking, and rather dim-witted awe.

Repeatedly he contrasts the idea of a ‘building plan’ with the alternative of ‘blind chance’ when neither need to be true; evolution is a continual feedback process to advance things that work and let pass away those that don’t. Not a plan, or random chance. Note p144, where the author comes across as a bit dim.

Note also how many of his footnotes are to obscure, and old, references, e.g. books from the ‘50s about some scientist or philosopher who must have made an impression on the author at the time.

I did learn at least one thing: that many different proteins can arise to accomplish the same thing. This means that the supposed amazing properties of organisms can have arisen by multiple routes; the properties of organisms aren’t quite so amazing when you realize there are many ways they might have come about. (This topic recalls the discussion in one of Dawkins’ books about how the DNA sequence isn’t a blueprint for creating a body; it’s a set of instructions for unfolding it, like a work of origami.)

This persistent misunderstanding of evolution is yet another example of how the world works in ways unlike human intuition. People need things to make sense in terms of story and purpose, and many are inclined to believe, and try to rationalize, what they wish to be true.

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