Wednesday, July 31, 2019


As I've mentioned before, the time lag between the announcement of new scientific findings and their assimilation by the public is often astoundingly long. In the extreme case, you have the works of Charles Darwin. His main ideas have been confirmed repeatedly, and they have been widely accepted by educated people for over a century. Yet, here in the U.S., about a third of the population still supports Creationism, depending on how the questions are asked. Creationism is dying out here, but it may end up taking a total of two hundred years, despite the mountains of evidence against it. As I've also mentioned previously, there seems to be a time lag between the announcements of the recent findings of Daniel Kahneman, Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach and Robert Sapolsky and their acceptance within the public sphere. They don't even seem to be percolating within the intellectual community at the moment. Tangentially, the works of Robert Plomin and David Reich, which provide insights into the genetic nature of human aptitudes and their unequal distribution within the overall population, seem buried in the media, perhaps because they conflict with some of the central tenets of political correctness. The picture that has emerged from recent research is that people don't think clearly most of the time or know as much as they think they do. There is nothing that can be done about it because this is how their brains work.

A related topic that isn't exactly a discrete field is groupthink within academic disciplines. The phenomenon demonstrates that even groups of people don't necessarily think clearly. Groupthink has been studied for many years in business settings, but it occurs everywhere, including in academia. Thomas Piketty touches on this in Capital, and may have been the first to criticize the overemphasis on mathematical models in economics. Sabine Hossenfelder has a similar message in Lost in Math, which accuses physicists of wasting time on untestable mathematical models when the real problem may be a lack of new data. From an institutional point of view, mathematically-oriented physics researchers offer the major benefit of not having to purchase expensive research equipment. This strategy may work in the short-term, but more fundamentally it may be a misallocation of resources. Then there is the closed culture of MFA programs and their stranglehold on what counts as literary writing. I have seen some criticism of that system, but it remains intact. My point here is that even highly-educated groups make collective cognitive errors – these are the most likely to escape scrutiny, yet Piketty and Hossenfelder have had the courage to call out the leaders of their fields.

The basic insight one gets from surveying the research is that no groups are immune to a variety of cognitive failures, thus, whatever principles a group claims to uphold, and no matter how competent they may seem to outsiders, behind the scenes, the prejudices and cognitive limitations of individuals are what actually drive practices and policies. In economics and physics, the accumulation of new data became secondary to mathematical modeling. In MFA programs, departments became vulnerable to the preferences of their faculties: the criteria for good literary writing can easily be distorted by the faculty. As I've said ad nauseum, the result has been that MFA writing is now at best forgettable, to put it politely. Nevertheless, MFA writers do well as a cult through their strategic use of self-congratulatory propaganda. It is customary to compare individuals to assess their competence, but comparable variation can be found between groups, and it is a mistake to think that the best-credentialed groups are the most competent.

Of course, these problems in academia are not really that important in the greater scheme of things. I remain astounded by the resilience of Donald Trump as a public figure. In a recent review of a biography of P.T. Barnum, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

Barnum became one of the most celebrated men in America not despite his bigotry and duplicity, his flimflamming and self-dealing, but because of them. He didn't so much fool the public as indulge it....he turned P.T. Barnum into yet another relentlessly promoted exhibit—the Greatest Showman on Earth. Americans, he knew, were drawn to such humbug. Why they are still being drawn to it is a puzzle that, now more than ever, demands our attention.

The problems of the Trump presidency are as obvious as one could hope. My only criticism of Kolbert's innuendo is that the information needed to answer her question is already available: people are stupid. It seems as if the last hurdle before order can be brought to civilization is the recognition that, although we're smarter than chimpanzees, we're often quite stupid. The research I've alluded to unequivocally supports this position. The stupidity applies to all level of society, though people who are perceived to be successful usually get a free pass. It may be that, at an instinctive level, Trump supporters recognize a fellow ignoramus who has been successful and can dominate and humiliate smarter people if he likes. Trump supporters get a perverse satisfaction from seeing him thumb his nose at the establishment, which they feel has neglected them and reduced their social rank. Trump is uplifting for them because he normalizes inarticulateness and ignorance. Actually, this is a very old problem, one that thinkers have pondered for hundreds of years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized that most people are unqualified to vote. He preferred a more patrician model in which only a few educated people without private ambitions or agendas would be permitted to vote. The Founding Fathers attempted to put in safeguards to prevent mob rule, but the gradual elimination of restrictions on voting and the expansion of the electorate have rendered it more difficult than ever to screen out incompetent politicians from public elections.

Kolbert, like many journalists, recognizes that Trump appeals to the worst instincts of the public. Fortunately, he can never be a popular president, and only about forty percent of voters will continue to support him. The underlying problem, which Kolbert and most journalists avoid discussing at all costs, is that at some point the public must be implicated as part of the problem. The fact that such suggestions would be labeled as elitist doesn't subtract from their truth. Thus, Kolbert, a science writer, whom one would assume is familiar with the research I've cited, is not exactly taking a heroic stance. This brings me back to my criticism of Michiko Kakutani, who, I said, was constrained by the requirements of her publisher, a corporation. There is an implicit "never bite the hand that feeds you" rule in journalism. From a journalistic standpoint, the conflict between free speech and corporate interests is almost always resolved in favor of corporations. There is no marketplace of ideas when so many of them are repressed from the start. Criticism of the public, even when it is deserved, rarely makes it into the media. When it does occur, it is usually only part of Donald Trump's ugly, worn-out business and political strategy.

If one were serious about preventing a recurrence of the Trump phenomenon, one would have to look at changing the democratic process. Trump was elected with the twenty-first century equivalent of the nineteenth-century practice of handing out free beer at rallies. Democracy, though it is preferable to autocracy in most cases, is not a good system for promoting competent political leaders. We are stuck with the worst president in American history only because a minority of the population was willing to set aside reason for a few feel-good moments. It is an unsubstantiated myth that "the voice of the people" will always correct political errors. Moreover, the freedom of individuals, as understood by most Americans, is not a sustainable idea. The U.S. is like a casino in which everyone feels entitled to a piece of the action. The American acceptance of capitalism is so deeply ingrained that alternatives are unthinkingly seen as heretical.

Much as I try to avoid it, I always circle back to the same conclusion: that the best hope lies in removing the public from a decision-making role in many if not most instances. The important problems facing Americans (and the world) are so complex that they may be beyond the comprehension of even the most experienced politicians. If anything, a mechanism is needed to prevent the public from guaranteeing a dysfunctional government in the future. In my view, the competent elite of the future will be AI, and it is already apparent that this needs looking into. I would be surprised if people in the distant future were not amazed that we were able to survive this long stretch of political turmoil with nothing more to help us than our chaotic little animal brains.

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