Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Narcissism in the Digital Age

One of the most notable features of this era is the facility with which people can inhabit a reality that is far narrower than they would have been able to only a few years ago. Sherry Turkle touches on this topic in her books, but I think that she only scratches the surface, noting the change for the worse in the quality of communication and in the reduction in face-to-face social engagement. I continue to think about this, because, in particular, I have noticed an increasing gap between myself and the millennials. This gap is not simply a change in social norms, but a deeper change that includes cognition, resulting in what amounts to the widespread growth of alternate views of reality that are often fundamentally incompatible with each other.

In the public domain in the U.S., this plays out the most conspicuously in politics. With social media and targeted news, an individual can simply go online and find viewpoints that match their own and engage with a group, whether virtual or real, that holds views that are never challenged and are upheld as norms. This phenomenon extends well beyond politics; it also affects personal identity and individual perceptions of the nature of society. Traditional standards regarding the responsibilities of citizenship become eroded when people define themselves as members of a segment of society, real or imagined, rather than as members of society as a whole.

Subtler aspects of the phenomenon show up clearly in the disputes that arise in the sphere of political correctness. In some groups, it appears to be the norm that all people are identical, or at least it is forbidden to bring up any differences between individuals or groups that might in any way suggest that one is better than another. This development is highly problematic, because people are in fact different, and some people are better at some things than other people. In the more open-minded domains, there is willingness to discuss these differences in terms of historical inequality, which often has relevance, but other kinds of differences – particularly those based on genetics – are still taboo. My problem with this scenario is that politically correct people habitually preempt the possibility of the use of critical thinking to gain a better understanding of reality. More than just turning thoughtful conversation into a minefield, political correctness inhibits understanding the world. It is odd that such a restrictive outlook is prominent in colleges and universities, which purport to be centers of learning. Academia thereby becomes, not a beacon of knowledge, but the producer of a narrow worldview that serves as a foil to the equally limited worldview of poorly-educated nativists and racists. The educated class, which consists largely of those who have been raised in privilege, becomes a source of rancor when it dismisses the less-educated while adhering to its own unsupportable beliefs.

Because of the narrow range over which millennials are willing to engage, and because they prefer to see the world in the same image that they've come to see themselves, their outlook is similar to narcissism. When you assign yourself to a poorly-defined social group that may or may not exist, you have to tread lightly when you interact with others. You don't always know which group they may belong to, and it is safest not to engage in any value-laden discussion at all. If you are a smartphone addict, chances are that your best friend is your smartphone, with all the magical properties that you attribute to it. Although this is probably a worldwide problem, the U.S. may be one of the countries with the worst symptoms. It is no surprise that the scientific awareness of the public is weak here relative to that found in other developed nations. In the U.S., scientists are increasingly being marginalized at a time when they are the best-equipped people to solve the major problems facing mankind. As Czeslaw Milosz commented after arriving here in 1946, there was already a mind-numbing lack of critical thinking in public life: the advent of new gadgets that can be used to promote docility should be viewed with trepidation.

Significant generational changes have been ongoing throughout the world since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Farmers gradually transitioned to trades and manufacturing, and, more recently, to service jobs. The need for additional education became more critical to employment. Thus, from one generation to the next, there have been changes in the outlooks of families for more than two centuries. The current change may be the most significant of all, yet the discussion of its consequences is almost nonexistent as far as I can tell.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity

I strongly recommend this short new book by Martin Rees, the British astronomer. There probably isn't a better one addressing the major challenges currently facing mankind. He identifies the problems and offers strategies for dealing with them, writing with clarity while remaining concise. It is difficult to dispute anything that he says.

The first chapter focuses on climate change and the need for clean energy. The second covers advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics and AI. The third discusses mankind in the context of the universe. The fourth examines science and its limits. The fifth, addressed particularly to scientists, recommends how they ought to respond to the challenges.

Most of the text is fairly serious, but Rees's take on some subjects can be amusing. For example, he doesn't think much of cryonics:

I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonics' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a California refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

More often, he is quite serious, as when he discusses space colonization:

...don't ever expect mass emigration from Earth. And here I disagree strongly with [Elon] Musk and with my late Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, who enthuse about rapid build-up of large-scale Martian communities. It's a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. We've got to solve these problems here.

In the whole book he makes only one claim that seems questionable to me. Although he is doubtful about the limitless extension of our biological lives, he thinks that it may be possible for humans to become immortal as electronic entities. Some such transition may become possible in a technical sense, but in my view it would be no different from death, except in the sense that a facsimile of the original person would continue to exist.

Perhaps the most interesting section for me is the one describing the current state of our cosmological understanding, and how it may advance in the coming years. We are only able to observe a small section of the universe, which may or may not be infinite in extent. There could be a multiverse or there may have been an infinite number of Big Bangs. Like Sabine Hossenfelder, he suggests that we may be close to our cognitive limits, and that AI may play a significant role in such advances.

The main strength of the book, I think, is the final chapter, which realistically proposes how the problems discussed in the earlier chapters ought to be addressed. Because nation-states are ill-suited to leading global initiatives, the responsibility falls on international organizations and academics like himself. There is no mention of the U.S. or the Trump administration, which makes an excellent example of how national politics can easily lead to policies which increase risks for mankind. When you stand back from politics, it is easy to see that scientific solutions exist for all of the current threats. Thus, it is important that organizations such as the UN and the WHO take greater initiative in the future. In this vein, it is also important that public intellectuals follow the lead of academics such as Martin Rees and Edward O. Wilson in publicizing both the threats we collectively face and their potential solutions. This failing of public intellectuals is something that I've been writing about for some time now.

The intractable geopolitics and sociology – the gap between potentialities and what actually happens – engenders pessimism. The scenarios I've described – environmental degradation, unchecked climate change, and unintended consequences of advanced technology – could trigger serious, even catastrophic, setbacks to society. But they have to be tackled internationally. And there's an institutional failure to plan for the long term, and to plan globally. Politicians look to their own voters – and the next election. Stockholders expect a payoff in the short run. We downplay what's happening even now in faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we'll leave for new generations. Without a broader perspective – without realizing that we're all on this crowded world together – governments won't properly prioritize projects that are long-term in political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of the planet.

Much of this is obvious to educated readers, yet most of the public remains dangerously oblivious.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray II

Lost in Math, I think, is of the greatest interest to working theoretical physicists, because it examines the main challenges currently facing them. If you are not yourself a theoretical physicist, you may at best get a glimmer of what their work entails. In my case I have some familiarity with the aspects relevant to astronomy, such as dark matter and gravitational lensing, but I'm not as interested in particle physics. What I find the most interesting, however, is Hossenfelder's description of theoretical physics in terms of the routine vocational dysfunctions that occur in other fields. This makes a nice contrast to the mythical depiction of physicists as geniuses who think at a level so much higher than that of ordinary mortals that you dare not suggest their fallibility.

Although sociological and psychological analysis of the field is only loosely scattered throughout the book, Hossenfelder does a reasonably good job showing that physicists face the same hurdles that people in other fields do, even when they are seeking nothing more than scientific truth. Conformity, groupthink and the status quo tend to squelch original scientific inquiry, and getting funding for novel ideas is difficult. Because particle accelerators are the experimental backbone of quantum physics and are prohibitively expensive, it is more financially feasible to hire string theorists, whose work can be done in the absence of experimentation. Hossenfelder specifically compares physics to economics in terms of overusing mathematical models at the expense of experimentation. She herself had considered switching to economics, where the math is much easier than what she's used to, if only to provide a more stable career. She brings up some of the ideas that I've discussed before while commenting on books by Daniel Kahneman and Robert Sapolsky, but without going into as much detail, and perhaps not fully recognizing the futility of attempting to remedy the situation. Sapolsky in particular is acutely aware of the intractable limitations created by our biological provenance. I don't think that she has been exposed to some of these developments in biology.

Hossenfelder spends a lot of time asking why beauty is so important to physicists, and she provides some answers without fully settling the matter. Usually this boils down to people using equations which work fairly well, but not perfectly well, to describe a phenomenon, requiring a messy sort of "fine-tuning" that no one likes. For many physicists, according to her, beauty is a stand-in for meaning, because it provides a sound structure without ad hoc fudge factors. Her position seems to be that one must adopt the best model available whether it's pretty or not, and that one should always favor models compatible with the latest experimental data. Currently, it seems as if there are too many models and not enough data to eliminate a lot of them. She also discusses the intrusion of philosophy into physics, saying that philosophers usually have nothing of value to add in solving physics problems, though physics itself does require philosophical assumptions. I agree with her here, and think that academic philosophy is mostly a useless and obsolete subject.

Probably my favorite idea in the book concerns AI:

I try to imagine the day when we'll just feed all cosmological data to an artificial intelligence (AI). We now wonder what dark matter and dark energy are, but this question might not even make sense to the AI. It will just make predictions. We will test them. And if the AI is consistently right, then we'll know it's succeeded at finding and extrapolating the right patterns. That thing, then, will be our new concordance model. We put in a question, out comes the answer – and that's it.

If you're not a physicist, that might not be so different from reading about predictions made by a community of physicists using incomprehensible math and cryptic technology. It's just another black box. You might even trust the AI more than us.

But making predictions and using them to develop applications has always only been one side of science. The other side is understanding. We don't just want answers, we want explanations for the answers. Eventually we'll reach the limits of our mental capacity, and after that the best we can do is hand over questions to more sophisticated apparatuses. But I believe it's too early to give up understanding our theories.

I think this captures our situation well. Unless a method to combine our brains with sophisticated AI is developed, there is an upper limit on how much we can comprehend. Even so, without such an enhancement, it may be possible for AI to translate its findings into terms that will be intelligible to us; it could decode the laws of nature in language that we understand. It is possible that theoretical physicists as a group are already operating close to a cognitive boundary that they will never be able to cross.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray I

In order to have some idea of what is going on in physics, I periodically read popular books on the subject. I read A Brief History of Time, by Steven Hawking, in 1988. Later, I read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. More recently, I read To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg, and The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll. When I was growing up in the 1960's, physics was the preeminent science, and biology hadn't yet made its ascent. Einstein was alive until 1955, atomic weapons were perceived as a greater threat than they are now, Wernher von Braun, the original "rocket scientist," was working for NASA, Richard Feynman was still active, space exploration became a national priority under John F. Kennedy, and the standard model of particle physics was established. Physics had the aura of attracting the smartest people, and I thought that I should pay attention to what physicists had to say. With a slowdown in its progress, you don't hear as much about it now, except perhaps in cosmology, which is not a widely-followed subject.

Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist, has written a unique and interesting critique of current practices in the field. She melds conventional popular science writing, such as interviews with top physicists, with her concerns about how research is being conducted and a blog-like openness about the bleak career prospects for physicists like herself. Her primary idea is that concepts such as beauty, elegance, symmetry and naturalness have subverted the scientific method in physics, whose practitioners increasingly create mathematical theories that have no obvious connection with empirical data. There is a dearth of new data, and this seems to have led to a kind of paralysis. The primary case in point is the failure of the Large Hadron Collider, operated by CERN near Geneva, to find interesting new particles other than the Higgs boson, which was first hypothesized in 1964 but not confirmed until 2013. Progress in the field of theoretical physics has been so slow that a researcher might easily spend an entire career without proving anything, perhaps working on a theory that ends up being abandoned. Moreover, as Hossenfelder interjects periodically, there isn't much job security except for a handful of rock-star physicists.

I like the fact that Hossenfelder's interviews read like real shop talk between physicists, but she engages in some deceptive oversimplification, in the sense that words such as "symmetry" and "naturalness" actually have specialized meanings that are more intelligible to PhD physicists than to lay readers. Books like this breeze past advanced mathematics in a way that might cause some readers to become ridiculously overconfident. Even so, as far as I've read (halfway), she has made a compelling case for some of the sociological factors affecting the behavior of the physicists in question, which mirrors what I have said about academics in other fields such as economics and creative writing. Academics in all fields are likely to continue the themes that they wrote about in their theses for the remainders of their careers, like broken records.

Speaking of music, Hossenfelder touches on some biological aspects of humans that show up in their preferences. Citing a 1975 study by physicists which finds that all popular music is similar with respect to maintaining a balance between predictability and unpredictability, her interpretation is that we like to be surprised, but not too much. This concept of humans preferring material that balances familiarity with novelty applies not only to music, but to all of the arts and even the sciences. To that I would add the psychological effects of advertising. I have long been puzzled why people pay attention to advertising. In this context, the answer is that the product being sold, whether a retail item or a politician, is unconsciously planted in people's brains as something that is familiar and safe, whether it is or not. Hossenfelder argues that the current generation of physicists, which grew up with the concepts of simplicity, naturalness and elegance, is having a hard time embracing real novelty, and that it has inadvertently sidelined the scientific method, which itself holds none of these prejudices.

There is another aspect of human behavior that I've been thinking about that Hossenfelder hasn't mentioned yet. This has to do with mate selection. Our conceptions of beauty are probably affected by our instincts regarding the identification of suitable mates. As I recall, a symmetrical face is preferable to an asymmetrical face, since it suggests genetic fitness. Similarly, there are universals in what constitutes the shape of a beautiful woman's face. And, of course, fertility goddesses are an indication of what people think a fertile woman's body might look like. I've only read about this anecdotally, but research has been done. Thus, it isn't a stretch to say that theories involving symmetry and curvature may literally appeal to physicists on the basis of their sexiness rather than on more objective scientific criteria. When you think about it, calling an idea or theory sexy when it has nothing to do with sex is really quite absurd.

Hossenfelder is quite a talented writer, and I like her dry, self-deprecating humor:

...I find a door that reads "Prof. Steven Weinberg." I peek in but the professor hasn't arrived yet. His secretary ignores me, and so I wait, watching my feet, until I hear steps in the corridor.

"I'm supposed to speak to a writer now," Weinberg says, and looks around, but there's only me. "Is that you?"

Always keen on new opportunities to feel entirely inadequate, I say yes, thinking I shouldn't be here, I should be at my desk, reading a paper, drafting a proposal, or at least writing a referee report. I shouldn't psychoanalyze a community that neither needs nor wants therapy. And I shouldn't pretend to be something I'm not.

Weinberg raises an eyebrow and points to his office.

His office, it turns out, is half the size of mine, an observation that vaporizes what little ambition I ever had to win a Nobel Prize. I don't have, of course, all those honorary titles on the wall. Neither do I have my own books to line up on my desk. Weinberg has now made it up to a dozen....

So I'm finding the book both informative and entertaining, and I'll make more comments when I've finished it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


I have been going through another drought with nothing suitable on hand to read, and some new books have finally arrived. I should begin commenting on them soon. The weather has changed rather abruptly, from hot and dry to cold and wet. There haven't been any frosts yet, but the leaves are turning and it should be much colder within a few weeks. I haven't bought any firewood and am gradually preparing for winter now. The first snow is usually in November.

One of my pastimes has been genealogy. For several years I had been misidentifying a person in an old photograph, whom I thought was one of my great-grandfathers. Through my DNA match, I have received actual photographs of that great-grandfather, who is a different person. To identify the unidentified person, who appears in an old photograph with my grandfather, which was taken in about 1910 in Richmond, Indiana, I have contacted a historian who has written a book on the Starr Piano Company and Gennett Records, where my grandfather was working at the time. I'm not sure whether he will be able to help.

Of course, I've also been following the Brett Kavanaugh nomination for the U.S. Supreme Court. As far as I'm concerned, he has already demonstrated his unsuitability for the job with his hysterical performance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Moreover, the last thing this country needs is another conservative Roman Catholic male on the Supreme Court. I hope that he isn't approved.

Another distraction, which is unwanted, has been a crisis precipitated by infuriating behavior on the part of someone who is connected with this household but doesn't live here. As most people who reach my age know, managing relationships with partners can be extremely difficult, and the problems never disappear. At this stage, I don't expect people to understand me or share my interests, and I am satisfied simply by having a relationship that includes some degree of companionship. I don't mind being around people whose preferences or worldviews are different from mine as long as there is no open conflict and compromises can be reached through discussion. What I have found, though, on multiple occasions, is that few people have the mental flexibility to engage in such discussions, and most of them, when under stress, simply revert to some sort of instinctive tribal outlook that they share only with their immediate biological relatives. Thus, from time to time I am forced to ponder whether I ought to just live alone, and, since I already know that I would find that unsatisfactory, I try to make do. However, I am aware that I have the psychological and financial resources to live alone, and, if pressed far enough, I would pursue that route, though I would prefer not to. I have spent half of my life dealing with mentally ill people, so this isn't exactly new territory for me. In any case, the current conflict seems to be subsiding, and I don't think that any changes will be necessary.