Links and Comments: Political bubbles; Group knowledge; Randall reviews Rovelli

Interesting pieces from Sunday’s New York Times

Front page article: How to Escape Your Political Bubble for a Clearer View.

About how to overcome the built-in biases in Facebook and other social media to feed you only what you want to see. Browser plug-ins; a Twitter plug-in, and so on. I do see some of this; I regularly read Right Wing Watch, which, although it focuses on extreme examples (there are so many of them!) has exposed me in recent years toward radical thinking, especially from religious fundamentalists, that I previously only dimly guessed even existed. And more recently, Slate’s Today in Conservative Media feature (this is just one example).

Additional what strikes me about this article is how most of the efforts are about liberals trying to understand the people who voted for Trump. Not the other way around. Also, that Charles Murray quiz to assess how you affiliate with “mainstream American culture” — which I took only part way through — assumes that small town, rural, poor situations are that mainstream. Not the much more populous, cosmopolitan, coastal cities.

I need to check out that Zuckerberg manifesto more closely.

The weekly “Grey Matter” column in the SundayReview section has an essay, Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, by the authors of the book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, that’s been getting lots of review coverage.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability.

This echoes precisely the distinctions between individual selection and group selection, and the resultant strain between ‘virtue’ and ‘sin’, in the evolution of our species, that EO Wilson’s recent books stress.

The point these authors are making is that individuals have as little individual knowledge of how the world works, as they do the skills mentioned above; in both cases individuals rely on the group, which means deferring to the status quo.

Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? You know that smoking causes cancer. But can you articulate what smoke does to our cells, how cancers form and why some kinds of smoke are more dangerous than others? We’re guessing no. Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

And this is why politics works the way it does.

The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris.

Finally, in the Book Review, a review of the new book by Carlo Rovelli, REALITY IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS: The Journey to Quantum Gravity, by Lisa Randall (herself a first-rate science writer): A Physicist’s Crash Course in Unpeeling the Universe

Alas, sad to see that Randall finds a couple obvious errors of fact, which undermine Rovelli’s rhetoric and poetry. She tries to be kind. Last two paragraphs:

The beauty of physics lies in its precise statements, and that is what is essential to convey. Many readers won’t have the background required to distinguish fact from speculation. Words can turn equations into poetry, but elegant language shouldn’t come at the expense of understanding. Rovelli isn’t the first author guilty of such romanticizing, and I don’t want to take him alone to task. But when deceptively fluid science writing permits misleading interpretations to seep in, I fear that the floodgates open to more dangerous misinformation.

A great chef once told me that many of his most talented colleagues had at one point been smokers and, as a result, tend to use a bit too much salt. This turns out in any case to be what many palates prefer. “Reality Is Not What It Seems” is a bit oversalted in an intellectual way. It isn’t junk food. It’s more akin to P.F. Chang’s. Everything on the menu looks enticing and perhaps even a bit exotic, and the service and ambience are pretty good. But the end product, though tasty, isn’t always as nourishing and sustaining as one might have hoped.

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