Links and Comments: Jonathan Haidt; Religious presumption; Hanlon’s razor; H.L. Mencken; Mark Lilla on prophecy

The Atlantic: Jonathan Haidt Is Trying to Heal America’s Divisions: The psychologist shares his thoughts on the pandemic, polarization, and politics.

Great profile, though long, of Jonathan Haidt, author of one of the best books I’ve ever read, The Righteous Mind, subtitled “Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Again, different people’s reactions to events may be differently appropriate depending on circumstances. Everyone isn’t the same; and circumstances change.


Friendly Atheist: Believers Who Overestimate Their Religious Knowledge Like Violence the Most.

About a curious survey given to believers: a list of topics from the Bible, with some fake ones thrown in, to see how many survey-takers claim familiarity with the fake ones. This isn’t so much about the Biblical familiarity of believers (let alone their taste for violence), as it is another example of how many people feel the need to claim knowledge, or have opinions, about things they really know nothing about. Like those man-on-the-street interviews that do the same (e.g. as done by Jimmy Kimmel, 10 Times Jimmy Kimmel Found Out Interviewing People on the Street Can Be Disappointing). The corrective to this is: it’s OK not to have opinions about things you know nothing about. Just say, “I don’t know.”

The list of 73 Bible items, with 13 of them made up, is at the bottom of the post.


Famous quote that I may have mentioned before: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair. This applies to politicians who take certain positions (e.g. about climate change) because their wealthy donors require them to; it’s not a matter of considering the evidence and understanding the issues.


Attendant thought of mine from a few days ago: Avoid crowds. You cannot think clearly in a crowd; you will not recognize truth, as opposed to consensus fantasies, when you’re in a crowd, whether a political rally or a church congregation. (This touches why, I think, in the current pandemic situation, it’s so important for so many people to go to church. For social reinforcement, presumably, never mind the Gospels’ admonitions to pray in private). In crowds, group thinking takes over, and the individual’s ability to reason is overwhelmed. That’s why many scientists, and artists, are loners.


Another pertinent thought: Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Or, to cite variations, to incompetence. Or, I’d suggest, simple human error. Yet some people are attuned to perceive conspiracy theories everywhere.


And yet one more, floating around for years, precisely pertinent now. H.L. Mencken:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.


Somewhat related to this: Vox: Is America too libertarian to deal with the coronavirus?

Americans, who feel even more exceptional about themselves than how all peoples around the world feel themselves special and exceptional in some way, have a contrarian streak that resents expertise and authority. Thus the second wave of Covid 19.


New York Times: Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal (which I reviewed here): No One Knows What’s Going to Happen: Stop asking pundits to predict the future after the coronavirus. It doesn’t exist.

The best prophet, Thomas Hobbes once wrote, is the best guesser. That would seem to be the last word on our capacity to predict the future: We can’t.

But it is a truth humans have never been able to accept. People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. We are not well designed, it seems, to live in uncertainty. Rousseau exaggerated only slightly when he said that when things are truly important, we prefer to be wrong than to believe nothing at all.

Trump! Coronavirus conspiracy theories! The essay considers historical methods of predicting the future (all of them of course phony):

In religions where the divine was thought to inscribe its messages in the natural world, specialists were taught to take auspices from the disposition of stars in the sky, from decks of cards, dice, a pile of sticks, a candle flame, a bowl of oily water, or the liver of some poor sheep. With these materials, battles could be planned, plagues predicted and bad marriages avoided.

And ends by advising a sense of perspective.

A dose of humility would do us good in the present moment. It might also help reconcile us to the radical uncertainty in which we are always living. Let us retire our prophets and augurs. And let us stop asking health specialists and public officials for confident projections they are in no position to make — and stop being disappointed when the ones we force out of them turn out to be wrong. (A shift from daily to weekly news conferences and reports would be a small step toward sobriety.)

Which echoes a point in my previous post — don’t be obsessive about consuming news. (And my corollary: and never get your news from social media.)

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