Links and Comments: Luck; Facebook and social bubbles; being openly secular

One author with a new book currently making the circuit of talk shows and newspaper op-ed pages is Robert H. Frank, whose book is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, and who turned up on KQED’s Forum program last month. His piece from last Sunday’s NYT summarizes his thesis: Are You Successful? If So, You’ve Already Won the Lottery.

Chance events play a much larger role in life than many people once imagined.

Most of us have no difficulty recognizing luck when it’s on conspicuous display, as when someone wins the lottery. But randomness often plays out in subtle ways, and it’s easy to construct narratives that portray success as having been inevitable. Those stories are almost invariably misleading, however, a simple fact that has surprising implications for public policy.

He goes on with examples — the Mona Lisa; the date of one’s birth; even the first letter of one’s last name — and goes on to the implications of these ideas to public policy.

This notion is analogous to President Obama’s observation some time back that success in, say, building a factory, depends on the public infrastructure that the factory owner himself didn’t build. Conservatives resented that observation, and they resent Frank’s ideas as well. Just this morning is Meghan Daum’s column in the LA Times, Why the right hides from its own good luck. Apparently Obama made some comments along these lines in a commencement speech at Howard University. Daum:

Nonetheless, conservative critics, with their highly trained noses for cherry-pickable quotes from a president they abhor, sniffed out offense anyway.

“Progressives by definition,” Mike Huckabee began on his blog, “must believe that the wealthy and successful among us have ‘won life’s lottery’ and are ‘fortunate’ to be where they are.” The Weekly Standard excerpted 400 words of the 5,000-word speech and slapped it with a troll-baity headline and subhead that repeated Obama’s line: “Pet peeve of mine: people who have been successful and don’t realize they’re lucky.”

In a new book, “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy,” economist Robert H. Frank does his level best to disabuse the bootstraps crowd of at least some of their Horatio Alger fantasies. Allowing (as any reasonable person would) that “success is extremely difficult to achieve without hard work,” Frank suggests that we are all nonetheless at the mercy of accidents of timing and twists of fate. These range from big factors (being born in a prosperous country) to the barely perceptible (being born in a month that allows you to enroll earlier in a youth sport, thereby gaining an advantage of more practice and coaching than others in your age group).

The flip side of this disbelief in luck is the belief that *un*successful people aren’t merely unlucky, but to blame for their fate. (McRaney identifies this as a specific bias.) Thus conservatives undermine the social infrastructure. WWJD?


Frank Bruni, How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.

The recurrent theme of cultural bubbles, and how Facebook reinforces them, citing Jonathan Haidt about social media and the internet:

They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

Last para:

But that’s not about a lopsided news feed. It’s not about some sorcerer’s algorithm. It’s about a tribalism that has existed for as long as humankind has and is now rooted in the fertile soil of the Internet, which is coaxing it toward a full and insidious flower.

(The issue about the supposed anti-conservative bias in Facebook’s trending topics might be explained by the tendency of conservatives to more often cite unsubstantiated sources…the way Donald Trump cites National Enquirer, as if it’s a legitimate source for news.)


And in the San Francisco Chronicle a couple weeks ago appeared Entertainer John Davidson: Why I’m openly secular.

I’d never heard of John Davidson, but apparently he’s been a TV game show host, among other things, and his ‘coming out’ as secular seems to be a big deal for himself and many others. I note it as an example of very basic observations about why some people find faith unnecessary and commonly-held religious beliefs not just unconvincing but repulsive.

If people believe that the Bible is a book of facts and not myths, then they are a danger to me and my loved ones, because the Bible, if taken literally, says people should kill anyone who does not agree with their faith (Deuteronomy 13), that women must submit to men, that slavery should be accepted, that homosexuality is wrong and that the end of the world is imminent. And, if people advocate for prayer instead of modern medicine, they are a drain on our health care emergency centers, not to mention a danger to themselves and their own children.

It is clear to me that the world would be more sane if all religions, all primitive superstitions, were abandoned. We are not capable of knowing all the mysteries of life. But science and the empirical method of discovery are the “candle in the dark.” Blind faith cannot be allowed to win out over rational thought.

As children, we were told that the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, Mother Nature, Santa Claus and God were real. We owe it to our children, when they come of age, to explain that these were all imaginary friends.

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