Imagined Realities, Evidence & The Singular

“An ‘imagined reality’ is an addictive mental drug that humans are infatuated with. It cures the frustration brought about by the constraints of the actual reality. Like a physical drug, it could cure pain and make life in prison more tolerable, but it could also take away life if used excessively. It brings communities with a shared spiritual belief together but it can also lead to terrorism and hatred…

…Imagined realities can consume the oxygen in the room. Galileo was put in house arrest when the imagined reality of a geocentric world flattered the egos of the dominant forces in society. The lesson is not to promote hypothetical entities, like extra dimensions or wormholes, as the centerpiece of the mainstream of theoretical physics for half a century without a shred of experimental test for their existence. The best way to maintain a sanity balance is to adhere to experimental tests as our guide, first and foremost in physics. Physics is a learning experience, a dialogue with nature rather than a monologue. Our love of nature is not abstract or platonic, but based on a direct physical interaction with it.

-Avi Loeb, “For the Love of Evidence.” medium.com. October 30, 2022

“Patapsychology begins from Murphy’s Law, as Finnegan called the First Axiom, adopted from Sean Murphy. This says,and I quote, “The normal does not exist. The average does not exist. We know only a very large but probably finite phalanx of discrete space-time events encountered and endured.” In less technical language, the Board of the College of Patapsychology offers one million Irish punds [around $700,000 American] to any “normalist” who can exhibit “a normal sunset, an average Beethoven sonata, an ordinary Playmate of the Month, or any thing or event in space-time that qualifies as normal, average or ordinary.”

In a world where no two fingerprints appear identical, and no two brains appear identical, and an electron does not even seem identical to itself from one nanosecond to another, patapsychology seems on safe ground here.

No normalist has yet produced even a totally normal dog, an average cat, or even an ordinary chickadee. Attempts to find an average Bird of Paradise, an ordinary haiku or even a normal cardiologist have floundered pathetically. The normal, the average, the ordinary, even the typical, exist only in statistics, i.e. the human mathematical mindscape. They never appear in external space-time, which consists only and always of nonnormal events in nonnormal series.”

-Robert Anton Wilson, “Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal.” theanarchistlibrary.org. February 20, 2011

There’s an interesting tension between these two views. Yes, having beliefs based on evidence is a good idea. However, evidence supports generalizations that do not tend to be true, it the absolute sense that Avi Loeb wishes to establish his views.

So, we need a healthy bit of skeptism. Some ideas are useful for living our lives. But, the trick is to reimagine them and discard ideas when they are no longer useful. We aren’t terribly good at letting ideas go, particularly when we have spent so much effort believing in them.

Perhaps the solution is to keep our imagined realities and identities small, and take care to be able to walk away from them when they no longer serve us well.

Calling Bullshit

“Our learning objectives are straightforward. After taking the course, you should be able to:

* Remain vigilant for bullshit contaminating your information diet.

* Recognize said bullshit whenever and wherever you encounter it.

* Figure out for yourself precisely why a particular bit of bullshit is bullshit.

* Provide a statistician or fellow scientist with a technical explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

* Provide your crystals-and-homeopathy aunt or casually racist uncle with an accessible and persuasive explanation of why a claim is bullshit.

We will be astonished if these skills do not turn out to be among the most useful and most broadly applicable of those that you acquire during the course of your college education.”

Calling Bullshit Syllabus

The Misinformation Virus

“Online media has given voice to previously marginalised groups, including peddlers of untruth, and has supercharged the tools of deception at their disposal. The transmission of falsehoods now spans a viral cycle in which AI, professional trolls and our own content-sharing activities help to proliferate and amplify misleading claims. These new developments have come on the heels of rising inequality, falling civic engagement and fraying social cohesion – trends that render us more susceptible to demagoguery. Just as alarming, a growing body of research over the past decade is casting doubt on our ability – even our willingness – to resist misinformation in the face of corrective evidence…

…To successfully debunk a myth, the authors conclude, it helps to provide an alternative causal explanation to fill the mental gap that retracting the myth could leave. Counterarguments work too, as they point out the inconsistencies contained in the myth, allowing people to resolve the clash between the true and the false statement. Another strategy is to evoke suspicion about the source of the misinformation. For example, you might be more critical of government officials who reject human-caused global warming if you suspect vested business interests behind the denialist claims…

…[When personal identity and values are involved, people tend to cherry-pick their data towards pre-determined conclusions, which] hints at a vexing conclusion: that the most knowledgeable among us can be more, not less, susceptible to misinformation if it feeds into cherished beliefs and identities…

…Since each individual has only negligible impact on collective decisions, it’s sensible to focus on optimising one’s social ties instead. Belonging to a community is, after all, a vital source of self-worth, not to mention health, even survival. Socially rejected or isolated people face heightened risks of many diseases as well as early death. Seen from this perspective, then, the impulse to fit our beliefs and behaviours to those of our social groups, even when they clash with our own, is, Kahan argues, ‘exceedingly rational’. Ironically, however, rational individual choices can have irrational collective consequences. As tribal attachments prevail, emotions trump evidence, and the ensuing disagreement chokes off action on important social issues.

-Elitsa Dermendzhiyska. “The misinformation virus.” Aeon. April 16, 2021.

This article hits at many of the main points of why there are so many bad ideas floating around: a funky media environment, our need to make sense of the world, personal values that conflict with the demands of reality, in-group/out-group dynamics, etc. Thinking about it as a pathogen is probably a useful mental model. Social media is like the Plague and we are in the early 1350s in its transition. Humanity will likely need a few centuries to develop cultural antibodies for its effects, and while there may be policy interventions that might have some effect in the short term, it’s still going to take a long while for us to come to grips with the social disruption of this new kind of communication.

If you think about it, this is true of every type of new communication format, even in just the last two centuries. Telegrams, radio, and television all changed the landscapes of societies, and they are still doing it. Part of what makes the Internet so powerful is that it creates an abstracted layer for these forms of communication that can also be tailored to focused audiences, mass media transformed into media for one, which is much more engaging. It’s going to take awhile to come to grips with it.

The Illusion of Certainty

“Scientists sometimes resist new ideas and hang on to old ones longer than they should, but the real problem is the failure of the public to understand that the possibility of correction or disproof is a strength and not a weakness…

…Most people are not comfortable with the notion that knowledge can be authoritative, can call for decision and action, and yet be subject to constant revision, because they tend to think of knowledge as additive, not recognizing the necessity of reconfiguring in response to new information.”

Mary Catherine Bateson, ” 2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?: The Illusion of Certainty.” Edge.org. 2014.

R.I.P., Mary Catherine Bateson.

The Market of Truth & Faction

“Fooling people only requires telling them what they want to hear, over and over again. People love to hear how right they are.”

—Stan Beeman, in The Americans.

The market for truth is a small one. On the scale of the universe, it is true that we are insignificant. On that level, we don’t factor into truth at all.

But, this is true of truth more generally. The truth is that on every level above the personal, the immediate environments of our day-to-day existence, our lives are of no consequence.

But, we want to believe we matter. We want to be powerful, famous and wealthy. We want agency in a world where most of what we think or do is irrelevant and worthless.

The only way to achieve that goal of relevance and worth is to believe in anything other than the truth. Our ego wants to place itself as the center of the universe, like the earth in Medieval times, and believe that the music of the spheres is playing for us. But, it’s a lullaby, lulling us into a sleep of self.

Fractions of the truth, leads to fragmented minds and to faction. The Other becomes a defining factor in maintaining significance, despite the truth. Faction is integral to dissatisfaction. But, it’s all an illusion built on the desire for significance, which is built on someone else’s insignificance.

All of it is a temple of suffering, the cornerstone of which is our rejection of our own insignificance. What would happen if we were able to accept this truth?

Celebrating Our Differences

After reading a bit about the Anne Hathaway kerfuffle on limb differences portrayed in The Witches, I find myself of two minds.

On one hand, we are all imperfect, a work in progress. When we do something stupid from a perspective we haven’t considered, it’s good and useful to have our myopic perspective pointed out.

We need to work to expand our perspective to the point that we can appreciate, even celebrate, our differences. The effort to train our minds to transcend our limited experience is hard work, but it is worth doing.

On the other hand, there is something about the effusive apology that I think makes this work harder. At some level, there’s a judgmental element involved, that people should have already incorporated some perspective and they are somehow less than because they haven’t. I think it is important to take people as they are and look for ways we, together, can move things in a positive direction.

No one has all the answers. No one is inherently better than anyone else. We all have something valuable that the world desperately needs. Like not being sensitive to limb difference, when we judge people rather than look for the good in their outlook, we are being a different variety of myopic. In the process, we lose the opportunity to expand our own perspective. In turn, you are also cutting them off from the good you are bringing to the table.

As the Mr. Rodgers saying goes, people are only open to change when engaged with someone that loves them. There are two religions, being right or loving someone. It’s impossible to be a member of both of these faiths at the same time.

Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life

7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
In order to position yourself well to cope with constant change, you should establish as many predictable structures and routines as possible. The point is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make about trivial matters. Save your energy for major questions that arise in our technological society. Regularize the trivial to cope with the significant…

Nystrom’s Nugget #1
Reserve the word ‘friend’ for someone who knew you when you still wore braces on your teeth, who has on at least one occasion spent the night with you in a hospital emergency room or police station, and who will without hesitation commit perjury for you in a court of law. Other people may rightly be called ‘acquaintances.’

13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
a dozen.

All bureaucracies are alike, their principal characteristic being their wish to satisfy the rules of the system. Bureaucracies are by nature hostile to individual differences. Although we pretend institutions care, institutions do not have loyalty, compassion, or feelings, which are human traits…

16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
Do not allow yourself to become grim about anything. Above all, do not become an ist: a socialist, a feminist, a capitalist, etc. This will help you avoid hardenings of the categories and help you keep your sense of humor…

19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
Quantification has a very limited effectiveness. Any attempt to apply quantification to human affairs represents pure superstition of a medieval kind. Nevertheless, modern America is based on counting. We try to redefine non-quantifiable concepts into objective quantities: for example, take the numerical scores given for intelligence tests or for contestants in beauty pageants. This passion for numbers and quantification must be discarded…

Nystrom’s Nugget #5
Do not place too high a value on honesty and plain speaking. You are not wise enough to know what is the truth, and what seems plain to you may only bring pain to others.

Postman’s Addendum to Nugget #5: Of all the virtues, the most overrated is honesty. Honesty is the first refuge of the scoundrel. According to Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, the main use of language is to conceal your thoughts, not to reveal them. In some sense, by suggesting that speaking your mind can be upsetting, Nugget #5 offers an anti-ventilation theory.

-Janet Sternberg, “Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life.” Academia.edu. December 8, 2005

h/t Austin Kleon.

Cast Reason Aside

“You can tell time by the cry of ‘Never again’…The future is obvious. Escalating suicide, the 20-year real-terms recession, the blackout, the plagues, those people falling onto the tracks, microhomes and governments’ continued abuse of ’emergencies’, are obvious. Yet many feel it a duty to portray shock of surprise when it comes along…Human beings aren’t content to cast reason aside—it has to hit someone.” -Heart of the Original by Steve Aylett

Comforting Illusions

“William Sloane Coffin tells the story of a scientist from Harvard flying on an experimental mission in a private plane over the lake country of northern Alabama, measuring with elaborate instruments the fish populations of various lakes. Sighting two fisherman out at some remote lake he had just surveyed, the scientist figured that as a favor he would land his plane on the water nearby and tell them that his instruments had discovered that there were no fish to speak of in those waters and they would have better luck if they went on to another lake. So despite the delay, he landed near the anglers and explained the bad news to them, expecting grateful thanks. They were outraged, instantly, and told the scientist in rich Southern expletives where he could take his plane and his instruments and what he could do with them, whereupon they baited their lines once again and kept fishing. The scientist flew off, much abashed and much puzzled. ‘I expected their disappointment,’ he said later, ‘but not their anger.’…But of course we all react that way to unpleasant truth much of the time: it upsets our preconceptions and our comforting illusions and therefore angers us, and often as not we choose to ignore it. None of us wants to be told, even though deep down we may know it, that there are no fish.”

—Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale