Links and Comments: Science, Reality Bubbles, and Stories

The most interesting one is at the bottom.


Scientific American: To Understand How Science Denial Works, Look to History, subtitled, “The same tactics used to cast doubt on the dangers of smoking and climate change are now being used to downplay COVID.” By Naomi Oreskes.

But while the events of 2020 may feel unprecedented, the social pattern of rejecting scientific evidence did not suddenly appear this year. There was never any good scientific reason for rejecting the expert advice on COVID, just as there has never been any good scientific reason for doubting that humans evolved, that vaccines save lives, and that greenhouse gases are driving disruptive climate change. To understand the social pattern of rejecting scientific findings and expert advice, we need to look beyond science to history…

How the chief culprit was the tobacco industry. And now we have Facebook…

…the industry was able to delay effective measures to discourage smoking long after the scientific evidence of its harms was clear. In our 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, Erik M. Conway and I showed how the same arguments were used to delay action on acid rain, the ozone hole and climate change—and this year we saw the spurious “freedom” argument being used to disparage mask wearing.

…In the summer of 2020 a report from civil-rights law firm Relman Colfax suggested that Facebook posts could contribute to voter suppression. Climate scientists have complained that the social media giant contributes to the spread of climate denial by permitting false or misleading claims while hobbling responses by mainstream scientists by labeling their posts “political.”

Without a historical perspective, we might interpret this as a novel problem created by a novel technology. But this past September, a former Facebook manager testified in Congress that the company “took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive,” saying that Facebook was determined to make people addicted to its products while publicly using the euphemism of increasing “engagement.” Like the tobacco industry, social media companies sold us a toxic product while insisting that it was simply giving consumers what they wanted.

What does this boil down to, ultimately? How American capitalism prioritizes profit over truth and responsibility?


NYT: Your Brain Is Not for Thinking, subtitled “In stressful times, this surprising lesson from neuroscience may help to lessen your anxieties.”

… This story of how brains evolved, while admittedly just a sketch, draws attention to a key insight about human beings that is too often overlooked. Your brain’s most important job isn’t thinking; it’s running the systems of your body to keep you alive and well. According to recent findings in neuroscience, even when your brain does produce conscious thoughts and feelings, they are more in service to the needs of managing your body than you realize.

This is another perspective on the idea, one my themes here, that humans aren’t rational animals; they’re tribal, self-serving animals who reach conclusions on emotional grounds, then employ lawyerly tactics, by cherry-picking information and using motivated reasoning, to justify those conclusions. The article here addresses issues at a more fundamental level.

We’re all living in challenging times, and we’re all at high risk for disrupted body budgets. If you feel weary from the pandemic and you’re battling a lack of motivation, consider your situation from a body-budgeting perspective. Your burden may feel lighter if you understand your discomfort as something physical. When an unpleasant thought pops into your head, like “I can’t take this craziness anymore,” ask yourself body-budgeting questions. “Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I dehydrated? Should I take a walk? Call a friend? Because I could use a deposit or two in my body budget.”

This is not a semantic game. It’s about making new meaning from your physical sensations to guide your actions.


The Atlantic: Right-Wing Social Media Finalizes Its Divorce From Reality, subtitled, “Fox News acknowledged Trump’s loss. Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election lies. But true believers can get their misinformation elsewhere.”

Again, we’re not rational animals, objectively evaluating the world around us; we’re tribal animals, eager to ignore the evidence if doing so validates the tribe’s beliefs about the world.

This is mostly about Parler.

A feedback loop is now at work: Mainstream platforms have come to the conclusion that certain content or behavior has serious downstream implications, so they moderate it with a heavier hand. That moderation, particularly when sloppily executed, is perceived as censorship by those affected, and the content or accounts taken down are recast as forbidden knowledge. The claim of censorship is turned into a mass-aggrievement narrative, deployed as a cudgel by politicians who use it cynically to rally their base, and various demi-media outlets and grifters attempt to leverage it for profit. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are pushed deeper into echo chambers.

Whether they will stay there is not yet clear. Parler is one of a suite of social-media spaces built for conservatives. Others include the YouTube-like sites Rumble and BitChute and the Twitter-like Gab. … For some Trump supporters, the whole point of politics is to “own the libs,” but on Parler, there are no libs around to own.

Part of this is the human tendency, not just among right-wingers, to not understand that other people have different tastes and beliefs than their own.


Lawrence M. Krauss on Quillette: Why Is Scientific Illiteracy So Acceptable?.

In the mid-1980s, when I taught a Physics for Poets class at Yale University, I was dumbstruck when I gave the students a quiz problem to estimate the total amount of water flushed in all the toilets in the US in one 24-hour period and I started to grade the quiz. In order to estimate this, you have to first estimate the population of the US. I discovered that 35 percent of my Yale students, many of whom were history or American studies majors, thought the population of the US was less than 10 million! I went around campus interrogating students I met, asking them what they thought the population of the US was. Again, about one-third of the students thought it was less than 10 million and a few even thought it was greater than a few billion.

How was such ignorance so common in a community commonly felt to contain the cream of the crop of young US college students?

Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t that these students were ignorant about US society. It was that they were rather “innumerate,” as the mathematician John Allen Paulos had labeled it in a book he wrote in the 1980s. They had no concept whatsoever of what a million actually represented. For them, a million and a billion were merely both too large to comprehend.

(The population of the US is now about 330 million. When I was growing up, it was 250 million.)

This is a problem all by itself. The physicist Enrico Fermi used to give students thought problems to solve on the proverbial back of the envelope. E.g., how many piano tuners are there in Chicago? You had to have some general knowledge about the world, in terms of populations and proportions, to get the answer; he only asked for the nearest order of magnitude. Most people can’t do this; from those who could, Fermi chose his students.

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said, “Reality is that which continues to exist even when you stop believing in it.” The line between being scientifically or empirically controversial vs being politically controversial has been blurred to the point of erasure. In Washington, and many other seats of government throughout the world, belief trumps reality.

With the example of Amy Coney Barrett.

I should underscore that when I discuss scientific illiteracy, I am not focusing on how many scientific facts people may remember. I rather mean the process of science: empirical testing and retesting, logical analysis, and drawing conclusions derived from facts and not hopes. The impact of increased CO2 on heat absorption in the atmosphere is something that can be tested, as can the expansion coefficient of water as heat is added, one of the key factors affecting measured sea level rise. Accepting the reality of these is not something that should disqualify you from, or assure you of, a government appointment.

The article was linked from one of my science fiction email groups because of this comment:

When it comes to public perceptions of medical or scientific prowess, I blame in part science fiction programs on television or in feature films that give the illusion that faced with a technical problem, sufficiently talented scientists and engineers can both ascertain the cause and create a solution in hours instead of years or decades. That is just not the way science often works. Most important scientific developments are not revolutionary. More often than not they are baby steps taken along a long road of discovery.

Yes, this is a problem, not just with science fiction dramas. And this is a reason why relying on stories to build your world-view (as most people do perhaps) can be misguided. The general example being that so many shows about police actions and hospital crises gives you the impression that the world is more dangerous and frightful than it actually is. A larger issue for future thought.

The essay has a nice conclusion:

The Enlightenment was well-named because it led to a greater understanding of ourselves, our society, and our environment, and was accompanied by the rise of the scientific method. Acting for the common good requires subjecting our own ideas to empirical scrutiny, being open to considering and empirically testing the ideas of others, and letting empirical data be the arbiter of reality. The most compelling reason that all of us, most importantly our public figures, should take science seriously, and honestly, was expressed best by Jacob Bronowski, a personal hero who exemplified the union of the two cultures of science and humanities:

Dream or nightmare, we have to live our experience as it is, and we have to live it awake. We live in a world which is penetrated through and through by science and which is both whole and real. We cannot turn it into a game simple by taking sides.

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