Beware Intuition and Common Sense

Three tracks today:

  • Steven Pinker on how democracy and enlightenment values are not intuitive (even though they’ve led to the betterment of humanity);
  • Items about conservative meanings of ‘truth’ and ‘facts’; how evangelicals think sex is only for purposes of reproduction; and how conservatives keep threatening violence to get their way;
  • Update about the new Crowded House album, wherein I’ve discovered that “Teenage Summer” is the same as “Life’s Imitation.”

First up: Jerry Coyne links this interview with Steven Pinker today at a YouTube site called The Free Press

Key theme of this blog: the perils of common sense. At best, common sense, intuition, gut feelings, work in small environments where the range of situations you’ve encountered over your entire life is small enough that each new situation can be related to something already known. But they don’t work, and are often counter-productive, in new situations that are truly new, like those encountered in the big wide world beyond the boundaries of the local tribe or community. Which is where we’re all living now. (Except perhaps for those people in Oklahoma, yesterday.)

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Small Town Thinking, Climate Change, and Smoking Cigars

  • What people in small-town Oklahoma think;
  • Today’s headlines about the effects of climate change;
  • A lagniappe about Republicans who need to smoke their cigars; and recalling the assumptions of 1940s science fiction by Isaac Asimov.

We coastal elites are sensitive to dismissing the middle states of the US as mere flyover states, but really, people, you need to try a bit harder, you people who say things like these.

NY Times, guest essay by Scott Ellsworth, 14 Jun 2024: Where There’s a Trump Highway but Not Many Trump Flags

The writer, a historian who grew up in Oklahoma, visits Cimarron County, “at the very tip” of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“I don’t watch Fox News — I thought they went way too liberal during the last election.” The speaker was Clint Twombly, a former Border Patrol agent who is running for sheriff. Standing inside the cinder-block building where the Boise City Rotary Club meets every Wednesday at noon, Mr. Twombly delivered his first ever campaign speech.

Like most of the locals I talked with, he dismissed any concerns over global warming. Instead, he said, climate change is all about “somebody trying to sell a book and make money, rather than anything to do with science.” As for the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, he said that “all in all, it seemed to me fairly innocuous.” Mr. Twombly was unaware that any police officers had died after the attack.

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Emergence, Complexity, and the Potential for Human Understanding

Here are a couple scientific topics that I don’t pretend to understand, at least not in any depth. What I find fascinating is how, while the big-scale scientific conclusions have been fairly stable for several decades (as noted two weeks ago), smaller studies reveal endless new perspectives that fall from those conclusions. It’s a bit like color: the perceived color of anything depends on the object itself, the kind of light falling upon it, and the human eye’s own biases in interpreting color against backgrounds and the surrounding of objects of other colors.

Quanta Magazine, Philip Ball, 10 Jun 2024: The New Math of How Large-Scale Order Emerges: “The puzzle of emergence asks how regularities emerge on macro scales out of uncountable constituent parts. A new framework has researchers hopeful that a solution is near.”

Very broadly, the issue here is whether or not complex systems can be ‘explained’ in terms of simpler system, or whether ’emergent’ properties are needed to explain them. Certain such properties help; this is a theme of the Brian Greene book I mentioned (in that same post two weeks ago). But the philosophical issue of how such properties emerge is apparently tricky. I’ll quote a bit.

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Change Control

  • How even modest measures to ameliorate problems in NYC face resistance;
  • How religious certitudes from Alito and others will not end well.

Still under the weather, but let’s try a couple items from today’s NYT, about perhaps the broadest issue possible: Change. Perhaps the most fundamental principle of all. And perhaps I need to focus more on such big issues, rather than be bogged down almost every day by interminable political idiocy (even though that mostly illustrates the same thing), not matter how amusing. Life is short.

NY Times, 14 Jun 2024: It’s Tough to Get Things Done in New York. Here’s Why.: “Congestion pricing was the latest ambitious proposal that couldn’t navigate New York’s rocky political terrain. It’s a tall order to achieve substantial change in the city.”

It was the print title, in today’s paper, that captured the essential theme: “In New York City, Change Is Constant but Obstacles to It Are Many”.

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I’ve Caught a Cold; How Much of Science Fiction is Obsolete?

I’ve caught colds my entire life; two or three a year. I sneeze, cough, and it usually starts with a sore throat. (Whereas I very rarely have gotten flues, with a temperature and symptoms that go on for a week.) The last time I caught a cold was in January, following our holiday overlay in Las Vegas. Now, after returning from Austin last weekend, I’ve caught another. In a rush as we left Larry’s house and went directly to the airport, I wore casual clothes and was not carrying a mask (such as I usually wear on airplane flights given my imuno-suppressed status). So, serves me right, I suppose.

That’s why no post yesterday.

Yet last night my partner said an interesting thing. We were talking to his kids on the phone, who were planning a Father’s Day lunch for us on Sunday. He mentioned to them I had a cold, so we probably could not join them. Later I said I probably picked something up on the plane, since I didn’t wear a mask. He said no, no, it’s because we were in a very hot climate for several days (95F in Austin everyday) and then returned to a cool climate (lower 70s most days). He’s said things like this before, and usually I don’t respond. He grew up in China, and comments like this one suggests to me that he retains a deep cultural belief in Chinese medicine, what with all its herbs and teas and how cold weather brings on cold viruses. Despite his Ph.D. in biochemistry that he acquired in the US.

This time I said, what? You don’t believe in the germ theory of medicine? He didn’t reply.


With little energy except to sample a few books in between naps, these past couple days, this afternoon I picked up (prompted by a Facebook comment) a book of stories by Zenna Henderson, one of the few female SF writers in the 1950s and 1960s. Henderson was famous for a series of stories about “The People,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction across those two decades, about a colony of humanoid aliens stranded on Earth after their spaceship crashed. Continue reading

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Narrative Drives, Reality, and Nothingburgers

  • More conservative reactions to Hunter Biden’s conviction, and how they are examples of humanity’s drive to fit any new evidence into pre-existing narrative;
  • Heather Cox Richardson on how reality defies Trump’s narrative;
  • How the extreme conservative worldview includes stoning gays to death;
  • The current state of the world, including Robert Reich’s identification of the crises Republicans focus on as “nothingburgers”.

To de-personalize and de-politicize these items, consider them as examples of humanity’s narrative drive, the need to interpret new information in the context of a story, usually a pre-defined story. That people so often twist new information to fit pre-conceived narratives is where conspiracy theories come in. All of these are from the past day or two.

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Politics as Fantasy, as Competing Stories

Three topics for today.

  • The Hunter Biden verdict this morning, and how conservatives explain it to fit their conspiracy theories;
  • Religious dimwittery about installing the Ten Commandments into schools; and Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s presumptuous allegiance to Christian godliness as the solution to all worldly ills;
  • How politics works, and how the derangement of one prominent candidate apparently doesn’t matter to his supporters;
  • And a note about the new Crowded House album, Gravity Stairs.

If whatever the data is, it fits your theory, then your theory is more likely a conspiracy theory, in which all evidence can be interpreted as supporting your premise, which in turn will remain secure despite all evidence.

The interesting illustration of this today was a jury finding Hunter Biden, the president’s son, guilty of misrepresenting his drug addiction status when purchasing a gun. He was quickly found guilty. Before hearing that, I thought, gosh, if he’s *not* found guilty, the MAGA conservatives will really howl about a rigged justice system — if Biden had been found not guilty after Trump being found guilty. (Not that two data points prove even a trend, but never mind.)

So, what are conservatives saying now? Well, Hunter’s conviction just proves something, but they’re not sure what. Something bad about the Democrats, surely.

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Second Return from Austin

More executor fun over the past few days. I and my partner and his son and son’s wife spent a long hot weekend in Austin going through Larry’s house, meeting an estate seller and a realtor and a neighbor, and cleaning up the house, mostly to dispose of paperwork (Larry kept paper copies of tax returns and bill receipts and whatnot going back to the 1990s) that might in any way be incriminating. Removing everything personal; taking a few items out of the house that we wanted to keep; and leaving everything else for the estate seller and the realtor.

Unplanned problems appeared: Continue reading

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Steven Pinker: THE BLANK SLATE, post 2

(Advisory: I’m traveling to Austin TX tomorrow through Sunday, and so will not be posting here until next Monday, likely.)

A key point about this book is that Pinker shows how the facts (the science) of human nature undermine both conservative and liberal ideological assumptions, or presumptions. It’s not that conservatives are the ones opposing scientific insights; liberals do so to, notably in ways that have led to what has come to be called “identity politics,” the idea that one’s rights derive from being a member of some group, rather than as an individual deserving of rights as any other individual. This theme becomes more specific later in the book, when he discusses politics and gender, for example. While he does tread carefully about the idea of differences between various ‘races’ of humanity, he’s unequivocal about differences between the sexes, in ways that go back to Wilson in 1978 and many following books (because their physiological differences have resulted in different reproductive strategies). But his bottom line point about morality is this: even if there *might be* differences between this or that group, you don’t judge a person by their membership in any kind of group. (Or maybe you do initially, in the sense that stereotypes exist because there’s *some* validity to them.) But ethically and morally, you treat people as individuals.

(Of course I might observe that since conservatives demonize other people not as individuals but in terms of their identities — this or that sexual or racial minority — it makes perfect sense to respond in kind. Pinker’s point is that neither position is moral.)

We’re still in Part I of the book here. This chapter runs from pages 30 to 58.

— Ch3, The Last Wall to Fall

Ancient ideas of the distinction between the perfect heavens above and the grubby earth below are obsolete. Newton’s set of the laws was the first event in what E.O. Wilson has called “consilience”: one of the great developments in human understanding: the unification of knowledge. Another was the understanding of life as a function of matter and energy, in the second half of the twentieth century. One wall was left: that between matter and mind, material and spiritual, physical and mental, biology from culture, nature from society, sciences from the social sciences, humanities, and art. And that wall too is falling.

Beginning in the 1950s was the first bridge: cognitive science, with five ideas:

1, The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.These amount to the ‘computational theory of the mind.’

2, The mind cannot be a blank slate, because blanks slates don’t do anything (as I described in yesterday’s post). Something in the mind must be innate, if only the mechanisms to learn.

3, An infinite range of behavior can be generated by finite combinatorial programs in the mind.

4, Universal mental mechanisms underlie superficial variation across cultures. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is an example.

5, The mind is modular, with many different parts; an urge from one can be overruled by another. [[ This goes at least back to Marvin Minsky’s THE SOCIETY OF MIND, in 1987. ]]

The second bridge: that between mind and matter: cognitive neuroscience. The brain is the mind; Crick’s book, taken for granted at the time by other scientists, was still ‘astonishing’ to many other people. [[ I made this point in my essay. ]] Examples of Phineas Gage and others with brain damage.

The third bridge: behavioral genetics, how genes affect behavior. Twin studies and sibling studies, and how the effects of genes are only probabilistic. The five dimensions of personalities.

The fourth bridge: evolutionary psychology, the study of the adaptive studies of the mind, via natural selection. E.g., given facts about the basic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, aspects of the modern human psyche suddenly made sense. Another example of how the mind is not a blank slate. With reference to that list of human universals, in this book on p435. How babies come with basic categories of mind. This debunked the doctrine of the Noble Savage; anthropologists have found that Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong. [[ This argument becomes a core of Pinker’s later book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, in 2011. ]]

[[ I need to summarize the argument of Rutger Bregman’s HUMANKIND: A HOPEFUL HISTORY, from 2020, which takes Rousseau’s side, in part by nitpicking Pinker’s evidence. As in so many things, arguments can be made based on weights of selective evidence. It’s not so much that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, it’s that both sides can be right in different circumstances. Yet again: the world is not black or white. ]]

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Steven Pinker: THE BLANK SLATE, post 1

Subtitled: “The Modern Denial of Human Nature” (Viking, Oct. 2002, 509pp, including 75pp appendix, notes, references, and index)

This is an enormous, thorough book on a topic already covered to some extent by several of the other major books I’ve read in recent years, from E.O. Wilson’s ON HUMAN NATURE (review here), Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS (notes not yet posted), Jonathan Haidt’s THE RIGHTEOUS MIND (three posts), and more recently read Steven Pinker’s HOW THE MIND WORKS (several posts) and Joshua Greene’s MORAL TRIBES (here). It’s advised to be aware that books like these build upon one another, Greene extending ideas of Haidt for example, so the chronological sequence of these is:

1978: Wilson HUMAN NATURE
199s: Sagan/Druyan SHADOWS
1997: Pinker MIND
2002: Pinker BLANK
2012: Haidt RIGHTEOUS
2013: Greene TRIBES
And maybe even Bregman’s HUMANKIND, 2020, also not yet written up here. And those books about narrative. And others…

The distinguishing feature of this Pinker book is that it’s about not one but three misapprehensions about the human mind: that it’s a “blank slate”; that there is such a thing as a “noble savage”; and that there is a “ghost in the michine,” some nocorporeal force (like a homonculus, or a soul) riding in our brain and making our decisions for us.

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