Evidence Maximalism, Pluralism, Seasonality

  • Charlie Warzel on how everything on the Internet can be taken to support one’s preconceived ideas, given motivated thinking and confirmation bias, amplified by the Internet;
  • David Brooks on pluralism as a solution to democracy’s ills, the opposite of what conservatives demand;
  • Cal Newport on how to embrace seasonality — basically, to assuage base human nature — to avoid the workplace burnout of the modern era.

Everything online is evidence for preconceived theories, says the Internet.

The Atlantic, Charlie Warzel, 8 Feb 2024: ‘Evidence Maximalism’ Is How the Internet Argues Now, subtitled “A simple theory for why the internet is so conspiratorial”

Examples of Carl Weathers, DEI and Boeing failures, Taylor Swift and the Super Bowl.

Mike Caulfield, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies media literacy and misinformation, told me that this is the reason it feels like political discourse online has grown so unhinged, and will only become more bizarre as we press forward into the abyss of an upcoming presidential election. He has written that all of the information online—news, research, historical documents, opinions—has conditioned people to treat everything as evidence that directly supports their ideological positions on any subject. He calls it the era of “evidence maximalism.” It’s how we argue online now, and why it’s harder than ever to build a shared reality.

Caulfield’s three rules for evidence maximalism:

  1. Any small thing can be evidence of my thing;
  2. Any big thing is always evidence of my big thing;
  3. All your evidence against my thing is, on closer inspection, very strong evidence for my thing.

My take: of course, this is basic motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, amplified by the ease of accessing the internet and spreading mis- and dis-information.

What to do? First step: realize you’re doing it. And that there are simpler explanations for events than implausibly-complex conspiracy theories.


NY Times, David Brooks, 15 Feb 2024: The Cure for What Ails Our Democracy

What would this cure be? My take: basically, don’t let the zealots have their way. Or even more broadly: have everyone apply the Golden Rule.

More of us have to embrace an idea, a way of thinking that is fundamental to being a citizen in a democracy.

That idea is known as value pluralism. It’s most associated with the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and is based on the premise that the world doesn’t fit neatly together. We all want to pursue a variety of goods, but unfortunately, these goods can be in tension with one another. For example, we may want to use government to make society more equal, but if we do, we’ll have to expand state power so much that it will impinge on some people’s freedom, which is a good we also believe in.

Brooks goes on citing Damon Linker about inevitable conflicts in our political lives:

…loyalty to a particular community versus universal solidarity with all humankind; respect for authority versus individual autonomy; social progress versus social stability. I’d add that these kinds of tensions are rife within individuals as well: the desire to be enmeshed in community versus the desire to have the personal space to do what you want; the desire to stand out versus the desire to fit in; the cry for justice versus the cry for mercy.

If we choose one good, we are sacrificing a piece of another. The tragic fact about the human condition is that many choices involve loss. Day after day, the trick is figuring out what you are willing to sacrifice for the more important good.

The problem according to Isaiah Berlin is “people who think there is one right solution to our problems and that therefore we must do whatever is necessary in order to impose it.” His word for such people was “monists.” All-encompassing ideologies. The solution is pluralism, accepting that many different ideas and values can coexist. (Not the same as relativism.)

The problem, I would put it, is that conservatives, and maybe some progressives, *do* think they know the one right solution to all our problems — and strive to pass measures toward that solution into law. Conservatives, in particular, don’t want multi-culturalism or separation of church and state; the worst of them want to impose Biblical religion on the entire land. As I’ve documented over and over again.


A piece about working. I have another piece, concerning Spinoza, that I’ll use in a future post.

NY Times, guest essay by Cal Newport, 16 Feb 2024: To Cure Burnout, Embrace Seasonality

The writer is author of Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout, due March 5th.

My take: broadly speaking, this is another example of how we live in a modern world quite different from the one where human nature evolved and was refined. And it’s good to keep such perspectives in mind. Read:

For most of human existence, the pace and intensity of productivity varied widely from season to season. During the roughly 300,000 years that Homo sapiens wandered the earth in bands of hunters and gatherers, nature dictated the rhythms of their daily activities.

After the development of agriculture around 10,000 B.C., the relationship between work and the seasons became even more structured, with predictably busy planting and harvesting seasons interleaved with predictably quiet winters.

It was the Industrial Revolution that ruptured this natural work cycle. In a mill or a factory, unlike on a hunting ground or a farm field, the relationship between effort and reward is constant: The more hours you run your factory, the more products you produce. This led to a conception of work as something that should occur at the fullest possible intensity, without variation, throughout the year.

When knowledge work arose as a major economic sector in the 20th century — the term “knowledge work” itself was coined in 1959 — it borrowed this approach from manufacturing, which was the dominant economic force of the time. Office buildings became virtual factories, with members of this growing class of workers metaphorically clocking in for eight-hour shifts, week after week, month after month, attempting to transform their mental capacities into valuable output with the same regularity as an assembly-line worker churning out automobiles.

In recent years, I’ve come to believe that the decision to treat the pacing of cognitive jobs like manufacturing jobs was a mistake. We seemed to have forgotten that life in the mills and factories was miserable. The unrelenting pace of those jobs eventually required the formation of labor unions and regulatory innovations, like the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which introduced a mandated workweek and overtime pay — all of which emphasized the artificiality of forcing our efforts into such an unvarying and demanding rhythm. And yet, as more of us shifted into the comparable comfort of office buildings, we carried over the same flawed model forged on the factory floor.

And yet, how else, at the time, could it have been done? The writer gives examples of successful people — Georgia O’Keeffe, Lin Manuel Miranda — who’ve become successful by working nontraditional schedules.

For these well-known figures, taking time off or varying the pace of their efforts was not just about relaxation or escape but also about improving the quality of their output over time. Seasonal variation wasn’t a perk of their schedules but quite literally a more natural way to work. It’s no surprise, then, that so many modern knowledge workers feel burned out or frustrated with their professional routines. We’re forcing efforts best served by a looser rhythm into an unnatural and busy uniformity.

Well you can guess where this is going. The writer has suggestions, like sabbaticals, quiet quitting, and individual scheduling, and then returns to his key point, concluding,

For those steeped in the virtual-factory mind-set, these seasonality strategies might be unsettling. In the industrial context that shapes so much of how we currently think about work, the game played between employer and employee is zero-sum: Time not spent busy is revenue lost. But in the knowledge sector, these dynamics do not hold. Extracting value from the human brain is not something that can be regularized like installing a steering wheel on a Model T. Introducing more variation into the pacing of our work is not a concession made to labor but a smart recognition of how to produce the best results over time. This type of variation is aligned with the long history of humans engaging in productive activity. It’s the grinding regularity of manufacturing that’s the outlier, not our instinctual attraction to a more natural pace of work.

But do I do any of this? I’m retired and spend most days at home, by preference. And in California, there aren’t obvious divisions between seasons as there are in the US northeast, or many other places around the world. The seasons affect my daily walking schedule more than anything else. So I take the writer’s point, but since I’m no longer stuck in a productivity-driven job, I’m not driven to performing evenly every week of the year…

Even though I do. I’m driven, at my age, to finish certain projects before, well. So I track my progress each day, from how many pages I read, to how many hours I spend on my current project. I’m aware of the seasons as I sit at my desk every day and admire the view over the bay, which of course is different from season to season. Today, a light but engulfing overcast, presaging a big storm expected to arrive midday tomorrow.

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