Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone II

The remainder of the book is somewhat entertaining, but there is little in it that is new to me. It briefly covers many topics that I've mentioned on this blog, such as politics, financial decisions, intelligence, AI, groupthink, science, experts, and the social effects of technology, with a focus on ignorance and cognitive limitations. There is example after example of common misunderstandings and mistakes in thinking. In a recent national survey, only 47 per cent of the participants disagreed with the statement "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do," and only 47 per cent agreed with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." There are a couple of famous quotations that I like:

Socrates, commenting on a political expert:
I reasoned to myself, as I left him, like this—"I am actually wiser than this person; likely enough neither of us knows anything of importance, but he thinks he knows something when he doesn't, whereas just as I don't know anything, so I don't think I do, either. So I appear to be wiser, at least than him, in just one small respect: that when I don't know things, I don't think that I do either." (Plato, Apology)

Winston Churchill on democracy:
The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with an average voter.

For a novice reading popular nonfiction, this book may be of some interest, but for me it all comes to naught. As predicted in my last post, the conclusions are far from edifying. Like Daniel Kahneman, the authors are sympathetic with libertarian paternalism, which I think at most might assuage the guilt of the rich, who would credit themselves for attempting to encourage smarter behavior on the part of the less-competent. The final message is a murky one, something to the effect of "if we all work together as a community, everything will be fine." The gist is that a person doesn't have to know much, as long as people cooperate. However, it is already established that people don't always cooperate, and, furthermore, that even those who seem to possess good judgment make decisions which, over a long period of time, may be to their own detriment. These latter concerns are not really addressed. Sloman and Fernbach are self-deprecating at times – a plus – but there is no real heavy lifting to be found in this book. While they recognize that their findings suggest risks to our species, they stop well short of providing a grave warning or recommending further study, as has the organization CSER. We are supposed to muddle through again – but will we succeed?

It occurs to me that, at a theoretical level at least, one may assign costs to cognitive errors made at high levels within society. At the moment there is quite a lot of concern about the presidency of Donald Trump among educated people, and the efficacy of the democratic process would have been an obvious avenue for exploration by Sloman and Fernbach. Their choice to ignore it does not reflect well on them as thinkers. Trump is a good case in point, because his judgment is widely questioned, and, in my opinion, his election reflects a dangerous turn in the public's collective expression of their stupidity. There are different ways that one might assess the costs to society of the Trump presidency. In the simplest terms, Trump could trigger a devastating nuclear war. That may not be likely, but Trump may well have a significant deleterious effect on global efforts to reduce climate change. Trump's ignorance of economics could potentially come at a cost of trillions of dollars to the American economy, exacerbating social unrest and destabilizing society. Sloman and Fernbach stop short of making recommendations regarding how society might avert these potential disasters by enacting a system that would prevent someone like Donald Trump from gaining access to such power.

As I've said, democracy, though it once had appeal in that it counterbalanced the abuse of power and provided individuals with a sense of self-determination, is not well-suited to the modern world. Increasing complexity has created a large stage for potentially disastrous outcomes that result from human cognitive deficiencies. Thus, as it becomes technologically feasible, I advocate the transferal of governance to artificial intelligence which operates in a semi-autonomous fashion. The gravest threats to the medium-term stability of the world population are all man-made, and there is no indication in this book that world leaders, no matter how well they cooperate, will be able to resolve them.

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