Links and Comments: Narrative; the Limits of Rationality

I seem to have not yet mentioned yet another essay about how narrative is taking over the world. James Murdoch (CEO of 21st Century Fox) a couple weeks ago in Time Magazine: Storytelling—both fiction and nonfiction, for good and for ill—will continue to define the world:

Storytelling isn’t always positive. In the midst of the chaos of Iraq and Syria, ISIS masterfully tells its story of blood-soaked vengeance against supposed oppressors in their own lands and those from the West. Its stories sow the seeds of unspeakable atrocities from Raqqa to Paris.

Entrenched and compromised interests spin the fiction that science is more divided than united, and they sow seeds of uncertainty on issues of unquestionable priority: namely, the survival of our species on this planet.

Political hopefuls, for high office and otherwise, create elaborate narratives that they themselves don’t believe.

Stories matter.

The essay also touches on how the wired world will penetrate bubbles:

In 2016, from Lhasa to Tehran to Odessa, people will continue to seek and find forbidden things. In this connected world, the game is up. Censors cannot hide, and their victims have decided, and are empowered, not to take it anymore. Italo Calvino had it right in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: “In the decree that forbids reading there will be still read something of the truth that we would wish never to be read.”

I read that Calvino meta-novel years ago, and perhaps should revisit it.


Last week’s New York Times Magazine had a long essay, Follow Your Bliss, by Jennifer Kahn, about self-help groups in Silicon Valley (and the Bay Area) teaching methods of “cold, hard rationality” to help people make better decisions and lead more efficient lives.

The essay recognizes the central quandary:

Our minds, cobbled together over millenniums by that lazy craftsman, evolution, are riddled with bad mental habits. We routinely procrastinate, make poor investments, waste time, fumble important decisions, avoid problems and rationalize our unproductive behaviors, like checking Facebook instead of working. These ‘‘cognitive errors’’ ripple through our lives, CFAR argues, and underpin much of our modern malaise: Because we waste time on Facebook, we end up feeling harried; when we want to eat better or get to the gym more, we don’t, but then feel frustrated and guilty.

The two major groups discussed are LessWrong and aka Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR, mentioned in the quote), and the essay describes various workshops, training camps, and methodologies designed to identify problems and find solutions. They sound interesting, and there are lots of resources on those two sites, though the writer has some misgivings:

And while some exercises seemed useful, other parts of the workshop — the lack of privacy or downtime, the groupthink, the subtle insistence that behaving otherwise was both irrational and an affront to ‘‘science’’ — felt creepy, even cultish. In the days before the workshop, I repeatedly asked whether I could sleep at home, because I lived just a 15-minute drive away. Galef was emphatic that I should not. ‘‘People really get much more out of the workshop when they stay on-site,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This is a strong trend … and the size of the effect is quite marked.’’

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one to find the workshop disorienting. …

This mirrors to some degree the reactions of people who realize the claims of their religious traditions, about the supernatural and the nature of the world, are implausible, and leave their churches, yet still feel a need to attend a church, in the sense that they feel the benefit of being part of a community. There was a question about this issue in today’s Dear Abby! Abby’s answer: the Unitarian church.

This social need, versus the realization that religious claims about the nature of reality are obsolete, is a central issue in many thinkers on these issue, as alluded in my previous post about the EO Wilson book. About which more soon.

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