Atul Gawande explains on The New Yorker how to differentiate pseudoscience from real science. The main idea is that a lot of people mistrust science because they cannot tell the two apart. A compounding problem is that research shows that trying to debunk specific examples of pseudoscience doesn’t work to convince people to believe in the true facts (science). So how do we go about increasing knowledge and decreasing misinformation in ourselves and others?
Atul gives us three main tools:
State the facts.
Tell a story around these facts (give your sources and an idea of the amount of evidence behind these facts)
Know and recognize the tactics of pseudoscience.
What are these tactics?
Faking scientific consensus in an attempt to suppress opposing views.
Producing fake experts with views contrary to established knowledge with no credible track records.
Cherry-picking data to support their views and challenge dominant view as an attempt to make people mistrust the whole field.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (1966) is really a book about revolutions, colonialism and alternative family structures. There is some science fiction like the setting and the fact that one of the characters is an AI but they feel secondary to the main topics.
**WARNING: Spoilers alert**
The plot centers around a human Lunar colony that decides to rebel against Earth because it’s exploiting all of its resources. Earth sent riff-raff to the Moon generations ago and now, the second or third generation settlers, with the help of an almost omniscient AI, figure out that if they don’t do anything they will run out of food and resources very quickly so they decide to revolt. The rest of the book explains how to do it and why (all from how to conduct negotiations to how much force to apply and how to establish secure communication networks in an insecure environment).
I would have toned down the didacticism a bit but I liked some of the ideas that the book explored like how a society with 10:1 women would work (answer: women have the power and have multiple husbands) or whether settlers in a new land are allowed to become a nation or should be a colony of the nation that sent them.
Some quotes follow.
On human psychology:
Prof set us straight: easier to get people to hate than to get them to love.
Revolution is a science only a few are competent to practice. It depends on correct organization and, above all, on communications. Then, at the proper moment in history, they strike. Correctly organized and properly timed it is a bloodless coup. Done clumsily or prematurely and the result is civil war, mob violence, purges and terror.
On Mike, the AI:
I got annoyed and had to remind myself than from Mike’s viewpoint analyzing jokes was just as important as freeing Luna — and you don’t break promises to a child.
In 1973, shortly after Boeing abandoned the 2707, its Mach 3 government-funded competitor to the British- and French-made Concorde, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule banning supersonic transport over the U.S.
And why did they say they banned civil supersonic use?
Because they said they were worried it would be too noisy. Instead of gathering facts and then deciding, the FAA decided to regulate first, and ask questions later. As you can guess when the questions were answered it turned out that noise was not a problem. And that was in 1973, today there are means to make supersonic planes quieter.
Whether it was a protectionist move from the US to or a truly misinformed decision the fact remains that when the regulation is finally lifted flights that today take 10 or 12 hours would take 5 or 6 hours with all the consequences (health, time). Another point that Alex from MR points out is that the cost of a mistake is high: you are not just preventing the technology from being used today, you are significantly slowing down its development.
On Sunday we escaped the intense rain that was falling over most of Switzerland. This time we tried a new national route, stage 2 of Alpenpanorama Trail, as it passes through the smallest canton of Switzerland, Appenzell. The name means “cell (state) of the abbot (of St. Gallen)” and religion had indeed a strong influence in its history: the canton is divided into two parts, the Protestant one and the Catholic one, and the capital. Appenzell is also completely surrounded by another canton, St. Gallen, because at some point in the 1300s the abbot of St Gallen taxed the people of Appenzell too much, they rebelled and eventually they became independent. The canton also has a fame of being the most conservative in the country.
We started the hike in Trogen, the capital of the Protestant part, and a place best known for its Kinderdorf Pestalozzi (Pestalozzi Children Village), an organization established in 1946 to accommodate and educate children affected by war. Whoever planned the Alpenpanorama trail had the great idea of making it pass next to the village so that was our first sight of the day.
After a number of grass hills and cows we entered a forest of tall pines. From that moment on until the end of the hike I think we came across two couples over the course of the next four and a half hours.
Trogen itself is at 750m above sea level so it didn’t take us long until we reached points from where we could see kilometers in every direction.
The most memorable part of this hike was the large expanse of yellow flowers (flowers are not in my circle of competence) that the photo at the beginning and the following photos show. It wasn’t the view itself what I remember most, it was the fact that the trail was completely covered with grass, it made me feel more connected to nature.
On the plus side we only got about five minutes of rain. On the downside that was more than amount of direct sunlight that we got.
For lunch we sat down on a bench in front of a mud cow playground. It was either that or risking eating under the rain. Initially the cows in the field across us were randomly scattered but as we ate hummus the cows started to orient themselves in our direction and approach us, like those puppets in scary movies or like the Doctor Who Weeping Angels. Luckily a single thread protected us from them. When the cows finished orienting themselves the resulting scene first reminded me of Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase, then I started looking around for an escape route.
Our next action after lunch was getting lost. This time we didn’t take the wrong direction, somehow we suddenly were on the wrong track. All the dirt and the trail being blocked by a pile of wooden logs should have been a strong enough cue but well…
After going down a steep hill with waist-high grass we found the trail where we continued until we reached an area with several interesting items.
We left this nudist friendly area through another mud field that made us extremely grateful of wearing Gore-tex hiking shoes.
The rest of the trail took us through more rolling hills with impressive views of Mount Säntis and the mountain chain around it.
Eventually we reached the town of Appenzell, known for its wall frescos but we were quite tired so that will have to wait until the next visit.
Amaryllis Fox, CIA counterterrorism and intelligence for about 10 years, talks about terrorism, human biases, the propaganda that fuels these wars, and how to obtain peace: listen to your enemy and fight policies, not oversimplified and biased views of people.
For people in the Middle East the West is Darth Vader and the Empire, a technologically more advance force invading them, and they are Luke and Han Solo, a small pack of people simply trying to defense themselves.
The premise of the book is that our behavior, feelings, attitudes and beliefs are all a direct product of our mental programming. And our mind’s programs get recorded not based on whether they are true or false but simply by how many times and with how much attention we listen or “experience” the programming which, most of the time, happens as we talk to ourselves in our heads. So if you want to change certain behaviors or habits in your life the best thing you can do is focus on changing that self talk. I have been doing exactly that for more than a month now and I’m seeing progress with habits and behaviors that I hadn’t been able to change through other means so I’m spreading the idea.
Here are some more notes I found interesting:
Most of our programming has made it into our brains unconsciously: it came through our parents and family, friends, tv and our environment in general. If you live in a poisonous environment and you’re not careful it’s likely that you have a poisonous programming.
Our brain is biologically designed to take in whatever programming we give it. It doesn’t care if it’s false and self-destructive. Once programmed, our minds will do their best to follow those instructions or make them reality (“fake it till you make it”).
Besides this external programming we also have our own mental self-talk: the stuff that we repeat to ourselves all the time. We are usually unaware of it and if the self talk is negative (“I’m so slow”, “I’m so clumsy”, “I’m an idiot”) you are not doing yourself a favor.
Your programming is likely to be extending to others because what you tell yourself all the time is more likely to come out of your mouth.
Ok, so you’re convinced you want to change your mental programming, how do you do that?
Most self help techniques fail because they don’t take into account two things:
Your self-talk is like muscle memory, you need to repeat yourself your new programming daily if you want to overwrite the old one. It this doesn’t become part of your daily routine and you don’t repeat it for at least a month you won’t see results.
When you want to change your habits you are not just competing for willpower against your old programming, you are also competing against the demands of daily life (work, kids, commute, etc). This means that any efforts to change yourself that aren’t simple are less likely to work because we physiologically have less energy to counteract the old, bad programming. Ideas must be simple, easy to use and they must work when you use them.
Five ways of reprograming yourself via self-talk:
silent: listen to your mental chit chat and notice what you tell yourself when you tell yourself something negative.
self-talk when you talk to others. Same as the previous one but take note when you talk to others, eg: “I’m so clumsy”, “I hate my job” and, if you can, stop saying them.
talk to yourself out-loud: it’s more effective than the previous two methods because it involves more senses and that means more neural connections and therefore stronger memories.
write positive self-talk (eg: in a diary): this isn’t for everybody but if you try it and it works for you keep doing it. Writing requires even more attention than talking which means stronger “recording”.
listen to self talk: very low friction method. Record your own affirmations or hunt for some that resonate for you on the internet and listen to them in any of the many 2 or 3 minute moments during the way that we generally don’t do anything.
Because of the way the brain works it does not matter that you tell things to yourself about yourself that are not true now. By repeating them constantly your brain will simply assume that they are truths and it will try to, within the physical world limits, make them reality. There is a difference between “I can fly” and “I’m a calm person, nothing stresses me”.
Tactical notes: I started with 3 or 4 affirmations, each 2 or 3 minutes long but it was too complicated. Now I have 1 affirmation that takes me 5min to say out-loud and that I repeat fully 2 or 3 times a day (via phone reminders).
According to a couple of studies, one of them by a psychotherapist who treated these priests for 20 years, the main causes were insufficient candidate screening and insufficient training to prepare for the challenges of celibacy.
You mix those insufficiencies with the Church’s power and authority and with the morbid shrewdness of those priests targeting vulnerable kids and you get these events.
Trying to think about it in terms of mental models the lesson seems to be: don’t give moral power and authority to too many people (where bad apples are likely to appear) in demanding situations (we are wired for reproduction). Corollary: if you devise such a system and you find issues (in this case children being raped) don’t cover it up and expect the problem to disappear.
What about the journalists?
The Spotlight team are heroes: in my mind they are kind of using the scientific method (make hypotheses, test them, refine them, keep a skeptical mind) to uncover new knowledge about human nature and their findings can have as much impact as many more traditional scientific discoveries like this story or others like Watergate.
Back to the movie: I didn’t find it lurid. The acting was strong and the plot gripping. Recommended.
What if an entity whose consciousness spans thousands of bodies suddenly gets restricted to a single body? And what if we lived in a world with only one gender?
Ancilliary Justice by Ann Leckie is a sci-fi story about spaceships, AIs, colonization and the moral struggle between doing what you know is right and face death or follow unjust orders. The story felt more like sitting on the Assembly of Ancient Greece than an adventure because of so much philosophical dialogue but I found the exercise of imagining myself owning multiple bodies very interesting.
If you are going to do something crazy, save it for when it will make a difference.