Links and Comments: Friedman on historical change, why evangelicals like Trump, Paulos on math and biography, Gawande on science, the case against reality

Today in NYT, Thomas L. Friedman: Another Age of Discovery. Friedman lets Ian Goldin, co-author of a book about the lessons we can draw from the period of 1450 to 1550, i.e. a period of extraordinary change. Then: Gutenberg undermined the Catholic Church’s monopoly on knowledge; science undermined humanity’s place as the center of the universe. Public leaders and institutions failed to keep up; people felt worse off (though they were better off than any time in history, as people are now). Populists won elections, reactionary laws were passed, intellectuals intimidated–the “Bonfire of the Vanities”. And, with the advent of cannons and gunpowder, walls stopped working.

Now, like then, “this is the best moment in history to be alive” — human health, literacy, aggregate wealth and education are flourishing — and “there are more scientists alive today than in all previous generations.”

And, yet many people feel worse off.

Because, as in the Renaissance, key anchors in people’s lives — like the workplace and community — are being fundamentally dislocated. The pace of technological change is outstripping the average person’s ability to adapt. Now, like then, said Goldin, “sizable parts of the population found their skills were no longer needed, or they lived in places left behind, so inequality grew.” At the same time, “new planetary scale systems of commerce and information exchange led to immense improvements in choices and accelerating innovations which made some people fabulously rich.”


Alternet: Valerie Tarico on Why So Many Evangelicals Find Donald Trump Irresistible

A puzzle because Trump isn’t much like Jesus. Tarico suggests it’s because “Trump is a lot like a different Bible character—one who also is the polar opposite of Jesus in many ways, but whom young believers are nevertheless taught to worship and praise. I’m talking about the character of Jehovah; Yahweh as some people call him; the Great I Am; the LORD God of the Old Testament…”

Her points: He’s all powerful, and wants us to know it; He’s an insatiable attention-seeker; He’s mean; He’s racist and prejudiced; He demeans women; He’s bellicose and vindictive; His statements contradict facts and each other; He’s wildly rich, and promises to make you rich too if you follow him.

(I take this as a teensy-bit tongue-in-cheek. People don’t like Trump because he resembles the vindictive God of the OT; people like Trump because, like the God of the OT, they both appeal to authoritarian personalities.)


The CSI site has a feature excerpt from John Allen Paulos’ A Numerate Life, a book published earlier this year that is a semi-autobiographical look at how mathematics informs daily experience, and biographies. The excerpt posted appears to be sections of at least a couple different chapters. A couple samples:

To vary the examples a bit, consider the museum guard who claimed that a dinosaur on exhibit was 70,000,009 years old. Asked how he knew that, he said that he had been told it was 70,000,000 years old when he’d been hired nine years before. The precision would be laughable, but shouldn’t we find it almost as laughable when someone claims to be relating someone else’s verbatim (precise) conversations as well as their dates, locations, and contexts?

One proto-Bayesian, the empiricist Scottish philosopher David Hume, underlined the importance of considering the probability of supporting evidence when he questioned the authority of religious hearsay: one shouldn’t trust the supposed evidence for a miracle, he argued, unless it would be even more miraculous if the report were untrue. In ancient times, biographies of saints and kings were replete with miracles. Contemporary biographies are devoid of miracles but still contain too many exploits and adventures that seem considerably less likely than their nonoccurrence. It’s the same impulse, but attenuated.


Now collecting a number of pages I’ve “saved” on Facebook the past few weeks.

The New Yorker, Atul Gawande, The Mistrust of Science, his commencement speech at CalTech, June 10th.

If this place has done its job—and I suspect it has—you’re all scientists now. Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. Common sense once told us that the sun moves across the sky and that being out in the cold produced colds. But a scientific mind recognized that these intuitions were only hypotheses. They had to be tested.

A beautiful, crisp summary of how science works, why some people resist it, and what to do about it.


Vox: Watch 6,000 years of people moving to cities

And, What would happen if all humans disappeared?. (The theme of Alan Weismann’s book The World Without Us.)

And, a Carl Sagan quote about science.


Two by Valerie Tarico, at Salon: The 12 worst ideas religion has unleashed on the world (chosen people, heretics, holy war, blasphemy, glorified suffering, genital mutilation, blood sacrifice, hell, karma, eternal life, male ownership of female fertility, bibliolatry (book worship)).

And 5 reasons to suspect that Jesus never existed (no secular evidence; early NT writers seemed ignorant of Jesus’ life, later ‘discovered’ by other writers; the NT stories aren’t first-hand accounts; the gospels contradict each other; depictions of the historical Jesus vary widely).


And finally for now, an essay from the April issue of Atlantic, The Case Against Reality, by Amanda Gefter, subtitled “A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.” This expands upon my own provisional conclusion that our minds are optimized for survival, even if they skew our perception of reality.

The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality. What’s more, [Hoffman] says, we have evolution itself to thank for this magnificent illusion, as it maximizes evolutionary fitness by driving truth to extinction.

Science, and in a speculative Bayesian way science fiction, are techniques for detecting actual reality.

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