Links and Comments: Sapiens; Leaving Religion; Conspiracy Theories; Weather Forecasting

1. From yesterday’s NYT Book Review.

Chuck Klosterman likes Harari:

What’s the last great book you read?

I picked up “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. I thought: “This will probably be O.K. I’ll probably learn a few things about Neanderthals and wheat.” But it ended up being the best reading experience I’ve had in at least 10 years. Harari writes about complicated things with unbelievable clarity, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a book where the author so often makes bold, original arguments that (somehow) immediately seem self-evident. It was so good that I started looking for any other book that seemed vaguely similar, most notably “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s book won the Pulitzer in 1998 and is (probably) a little more respected, simply because it’s more rigorous and the style is more academic. And while that book is also undeniably excellent, I still liked “Sapiens” more. This is partially because Harari had the benefit of Diamond’s pre-existing work, but mostly because of the overall presentation. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is a book that says, “Here are things that happened, and here’s why they happened the way that they did.” “Sapiens” is a book that says, “Here are things that happened, here’s why they happened, and here’s what that says about the experience of being human in the modern age.”

2. A review by C. E. Morgan:

Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life
By Amber Scorah

Though religious fundamentalism has surged globally in recent decades, the anti-intellectualism of these authoritarian movements, their staunch refusal to cede ground to reason and empiricism, often confounds nonbelievers. How can people devote the totality of their lives to the unseen, the unevidenced? How can faith subsume thinking?

But reason is a poor weapon against the believer whose very religious identity springs from an embrace of the unreasonable. Many fundamentalists are conscious of the seeming absurdity of their position, but it is precisely the stridency of their faith, their ability to withstand the irrational, that confirms for them their exceptionalism and salvation. They reject modernity’s demystification project and instead construct meaning in the supernatural. Their faith becomes very thick armor indeed, one that even the sharpest Enlightenment rationalism won’t penetrate.

But the stunted psychology of those raised in extreme religion is another problem altogether. For these children, there is no obvious forfeiture of common sense or flight from existential chaos that informs adult conversion. Rather, they experience a totalizing indoctrination that so severely limits the formation of an adult psychology that many don’t ever achieve maturity in the way secular society conceives of it, a state of empowered capability that permits complex life choices, a state in which contradictory ideas can be held in tension without psychic recoil. Instead, the fundamentalist child, raised on fear and limitation, lives a life of diminished options, constrained by strict dualisms: black and white, good and bad, God and Satan, and (perhaps most alarmingly for the broader culture) us and them.

The reviewer, curiously, teaches at Harvard Divinity School.

3. The New Yorker: Elizabeth Kolbert on conspiracy theories:

America has always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies. … Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum are professors of government at, respectively, Dartmouth and Harvard. A few years ago, they found themselves, in their words, “startled into thought.” Yes, they knew, crazy ideas were a fixture of American life. But not this crazy. “The subject required more detailed and thoughtful interpretation,” the two write at the beginning of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”

“Classic” conspiracy theories, according to Muirhead and Rosenblum, arise in response to real events—the assassination of John F. Kennedy, say, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Such theories, they argue, constitute a form of explanation, however inaccurate they may be. What sets theories like QAnon apart is a lack of interest in explanation. Indeed, as with the nonexistent child-trafficking ring being run out of the nonexistent basement, “there is often nothing to explain.” The professors observe, “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”

The constituency, too, has shifted. Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it’s been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it’s those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.

Personal comments: It occurred to me recently that the appeal of conspiracy theories is among those who find ordinary explanations for things unconvincing. There must be something more; life can’t be just about coincidence. And it’s analogous to the appeal of creationism. How can natural forces result in all this complex natural world, in *us*? That it was all ‘created’ by some magical being is a kind of conspiracy theory: a simple-minded but unlikely explanation for something that has a natural explanation.

Another thought about conspiracy theories, from a couple comments I’ve read somewhere: No one who has worked in Washington DC, or who has been a project manager, can possibly believe in conspiracy theories. On the latter point, how often has a team of 30 or 3000 designers and engineers ever coordinated a project and gotten everything done on time and on budget? It never happens. It would have to have happened for any of those conspiracies theories about faking the moon landing or hiding evidence of alien visitors to be true.

4. Among the many ways life is better now than it was decades or centuries ago – despite the MAGA cultists – is how good weather forecasting has gotten. Hannah Fry in The New Yorker:

In our world, weather forecasts are so ubiquitous that we treat them as notable only when wrong. It’s easy to forget what a crucial role they play, and to overlook the monumental achievement they represent. But Andrew Blum’s new book, “The Weather Machine” (Ecco), asks us to pause and marvel at the globe-spanning networks of collaboration required to turn the weather from something we experience to something we can predict.

The supercomputers have brought improved accuracy, too. In 2015, the E.C.M.W.F.’s six-day forecast was as good as its three-day forecast was in 1975. In 2012, its computers correctly foresaw Hurricane Sandy at least six days in advance. By 2025, they are expected to be able to detect high-impact events two weeks into the future.

The E.C.M.W.F.’s American cousin, run by the National Weather Service, tends to be a little less accurate a little more often. (Notably, it had Hurricane Sandy turning out to sea until just four days before it made landfall.) The two systems differ in the way they take observations into account, and there is no shortage of people who are vehement proponents of one model over the other. But both, of course, have their shortcomings: anyone who has ever been caught short without an umbrella won’t need to be told that even an “accurate” prediction isn’t the same as a perfect one.

It’s easy to forget that behind each prediction is one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments—something that requires armies of people all over the globe collecting and sharing data, exquisite mathematical modelling, and staggering computer power. The weather doesn’t respect political or geographic boundaries: we’re all living under the same sky. And so weather prediction has been a marvel not only of technology but also of international coöperation. As we enter an era of more storms and greater uncertainty than we’ve ever experienced, let’s hope it stays that way.

E.C.M.W.F. is the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. These are the European and American models that Al Roker frequently mentions.

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