21 April 2021

COVID Confessional—On Maintaining Just the Right Amount of Skepticism

Among the many challenges of the past thirteen months has been the everyday-epistemological challenge of staying grounded and vigilant in an environment of ever-polarizing opinion. Recent conversations with two valued friends reveal the danger of the post-COVID world bifurcating absolutely into sheep and denialists. I hasten to insist that these are not the only two options.

I am someone who will not even take a pain killer except in the most extreme of circumstances. I am willing to accept science while reserving the right to limit my exposure to scientific error. Science has given me a few new sets of front teeth over the years, no small matter in my case, and yet I shudder to think what toxins I may have ingested this way (and may yet ingest again). I am an enthusiastic but late adopter of technology in something like Mumford's mode, seeking to enhance life through machine use and to avoid outsourcing life to machines. I don't like to change, but in a pinch I am often surprised at just how adaptable I can be. I think this is a fine way to live. The pandemic is, nevertheless, something of a challenge to this outlook. Like a really bad headache or a baseball to the chops, the pandemic forces the issue. It also forces us to consider how our decisions affect others in a way that literal aches and pains, being perhaps the exceptional "individual" problems, do not.

Somewhere between an "abundance of caution" and "throwing caution to the wind," I would posit a workable middle-ground location, something like a "minimum of caution," meaning: take all the precautions that don't cost you anything; prioritize the basics. I speak now somewhat in the language of N.N. Taleb, who, with a much greater technical and practical arsenal at his disposal, handles these sorts of epistemological questions brilliantly and in precisely the way I, albeit supremely lacking in such technical and practical equipage, have often tended to think about them, especially in the realms of ingestion and vaccination. I confess that my inner "negative empiricist" tends to rather selectively conjure himself in matters of ingestion and vaccination. I am also guilty of focusing too exclusively on downsides and of underrating upsides, as Kahneman and colleagues have shown is endemic to our "fast" brain. (I accept this science!) And I know much, much less than any committed consumer of news likely does about the granular details of vaccine ingredients and reactions. Taleb, Kahneman, and others have curated for lay consumption the quite troublesome phenomenon of more information leading to worse decision-making. I don't know that the vaccination question truly falls into this category, but I am very comfortable applying the "minimum of caution" heuristic to it, because that is the heuristic I apply most everywhere else. So, given my membership in the new untouchable subcaste of "workers who can't work from home," I decided to get vaccinated without thinking too hard (okay, without thinking at all) about ingredients, reactions, science, or politics.

There is a third branch of the barbell which Taleb, bless him, promises to take up but never really does (or not to my satisfaction), this being ethics and morals. With COVID we have a perfect irritant for this epistemological wound: the various corrective measures, from the least to the most intrusive, are really more about protecting others than about protecting ourselves. My "minimum of caution" works well for decisions which affect only me, but it is not such a simple proposition here.

Masking and distancing seem to me like archetypal barbell propositions: most of the benefit can be had this way without costing us much. The more onerous, top-down measures further limiting what masked, distanced people are allowed to do are, on the other hand, very costly, and more importantly, they are differently and inequitably costly. Some curious rhetoric has come out of this sagging barbell. Late last summer I heard a scientist-commentator claim, in response to the proposal that restictions be eased for low-risk groups on grounds of limiting economic damage, that the science on risk factors was not conclusive enough to permit such a policy. Perhaps so, but then much policy had already been made based on this fairly crude science. During the period where grocery stores blocked off the early morning for high-risk groups to shop, I never heard anyone waiting in line at Whole Foods invoke the ultimate uncertainty of science so that they could get in faster; and yet this tack was enthusiastically taken by a well-established scientist in order to avoid litigating a bedrock ethical/worldview conflict. This I find frustrating.

I draw a very different conclusion from uncertainty: if all science is to some degree uncertain, then moral urgency is always already part of how we use science, and this is where the real action is. In the moral framework I am calling a "minimum of caution," we do not treat science as certain until we are forced by circumstances to do so. When we are forced to confront a life-threatening injury or to bring a serial rape suspect to trial, we behave as if we are certain of the science even if in reality we know we cannot be; and then, implicitly at least, we consent to live with the possibility of being wrong. The notion of degrees of certainty, of whether we are 50%, 90%, or 99.99% confident in a given piece of science, is, I want to argue, quite easily and quite often rendered irrelevant by extenuating circumstances, and this more often than we would like to think. Put another way, for each of these percentages there is a countervailing degree of moral urgency which can dictate quick and dirty adjustments, adjustments which are quite unscientific but not at all irrational. If this were not the case, all science would continually be moving halfway toward usability without ever arriving. Colloquially speaking, in the end we are either "in" on some given piece of science or we are "out" on it. In deed if not in word, the percentages are always either zero or one hundred. Because of ultimate uncertainty, it is safer for the ego to be "out" on it all! Especially if, like Taleb, your personal success heuristic ("not being a sucker") is sensitive to the small-minded judgments of others1. But it is not possible to get out of the game entirely. The pandemic has enabled us to be certain at least of that.

For the aforementioned scientist-commentator, then, I am left to think that the moral urgency of long lines at Whole Foods was low, while that of general containment of the virus was extremely high. The preliminary and crude understanding of risk factors was good enough for one and not for the other. She was not going to be certain of her results unless forced to (or, more to the point, allowed to) by circumstance. I accept this reasoning. But this is not the reasoning that came out of her mouth. It is not the reasoning that laypeople like me, who already were ignoring the news even before we read Taleb's diatribes against following the news too closely, were accosted with that day upon daring to come up for epistemological air. Only sheep and dinosaurs can survive on such meager rations.

There are a few reasons why I have become fixated on this single instance. One is that, admittedly, skepticism comes easily when you've been cut off at the knees. Another is that I previously associated the uncertainty card only with the rightest of climate deniers and the leftest of social constructivists. In those cases too, litigation of the science is more interesting intellectually than it is morally necessary for laypeople. Pollution and waste were already killing us a thousand other ways (even my old roommate the climate denier did not deny this); similarly, perfect knowledge of the genetic-social nexus is neither necessary nor sufficient when it comes to how we interact with others. Even where the science itself is pursued with perfect disinterest, it might as well still be called ideological science. The wider world makes it so.

One area where we need science most is when the consequences of our actions are otherwise hidden from us. Some such things are perfectly transparent though, and others can be made transparent rather easily, without formal scientific intervention. I suspect it is the things we have learned this way that have always shaped how we use science more so than anyone's notion of scientific certainty. If we can stay open, honest, and yes, just slightly skeptical, this is precisely as it should be.

1. Taleb is best read for general thrust and not for small details. He himself has noticed as much, and he's right. That said, I think the construction of the "sucker" heuristic has a transparent epistemological flaw which is pragmatically significant, even in Los Angeles. The "sucker" heuristic may work brilliantly in the realm of global trading, but it does not work well at all in, say, a 5-on-5 basketball game. The defender who tries the hardest and looks the worst is often the best defender on one team, who is customarily tasked with guarding the best scorer on the other team. On the professional level, the try-hards more often get "posterized" by spectacular dunkers while the deadbeats simply get out of the way and start jogging up court. The advent of Analytics has somewhat exonerated the "suckers" here, at least in the eyes of their employers; fans of course are another matter, and fans ultimately are very important to revenue. At the recreational level, since I am often the tallest, I have been the try-hard "sucker" many times. I also have observed and participated in many games amongst young men for whom "not being a sucker" was almost as important as winning, and a few where it was transparently much more important than winning. This is how I learned what it feels like to "win" while also being a "sucker." It is not a good feeling! Different from losing, but just as bad. There is nothing absolutely wrong with any of this vis-a-vis mere recreation, but needless to say it is a rather extreme departure from the archetype "basketball." It is also, I would contend, a strong indication of trauma given the near-universality of competitive play among men and the lengths to which men typically go to win even in the recreational realm.

I am reasoning by induction here, which a true negative empiricist wouldn't allow. Perhaps I should reformulate: basketball is a single counterexample which disproves any conceit that "not being a sucker" has universal applicability to zero-sum games. (At least if you like to win. Even in Minneapolis.)


Stefan Kac said...

Richard Schickel
Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America (1985)

"One must be careful, of course, not to romanticize the years when the parties were all-powerful. They were obviously prone to corruption, crudity, and compromise. But the situation now [1985] is worse. From his exile Richard M. Nixon comments with sour acuity that "television is to news what bumper stickers are to philosophy." But there is no doubt that television has further vulgarized the already vulgarized process by which ideas are translated into political action. By going always for the shrillest advocate of a program or policy and then juxtaposing with him its most outraged and outrageous opponent, it parodies, in a thirty- or forty-second spot, the best traditions of democratic debate. "It excludes the third or fourth choice," Adlai E. Stevenson III said, having given up his Senate seat at least in part because he no longer wished to participate in a process of this kind. ...

"He does not mention another factor, recently isolated by political scientists. It might be termed the Idiot's Delight Phenomenon. It is based on the fact that 20 to 30 percent of the audience for the nightly news broadcasts use these shows as their sole source of information about current affairs. They read no newspapers or magazines, and they represent the low end of the scale educationally and economically... We may also be pretty certain that they do not vote, since voting on a more or less regular basis is essentially a middle-class phenomenon, based on the fact that members of this class continue to take their civics lessons seriously and thus cling most closely to the political illusion. Be that as it may, Professor Michael J. Robinson, a political scientist at Catholic University, identifies the denizens of the socioeconomic lower depths as the "inadvertent audience" for news, people who, before the advent of television, were stable in their opinions and passive in their political behavior. Now, even though they don't vote, even though they are precisely the Grammy Awards audience that Vidal is talking about, they actually exert what might be called an "inadvertent influence" on political life. They are, to begin with, the least common denominator at which news programs must be aimed, for Nielsen naturally includes them in its ratings. Since like all the rest of television, the news shows are dependent on numbers for success, it is understood that this lower third must not be allowed to become bored and start switching channels. Lively pictures and pleasing personalities—that's the ticket to their contentment. So, through the years, television news drifts ever downward in its aspirations and its appeals... But if Nielsen picks up these absurdities, so do the other pollsters when they are testing the waters on other matters, and Daniel Yankelovich, the public opinion sampler, attributes the sudden violent gusts and eddies that blow through his polls to this volatile, perspectiveless mass."

Stefan Kac said...

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd
("Abridged edition with a 1969 preface")
(orig. 1950)

"There is evidence that in America rapid fluctuation of opinion is to be found primarily in the better educated groups, the groups in which we also expect to find the inside-dopesters. Thus, the very interesting study made at the Harvard Department of Social Relations of attitudes toward Russia provides evidence that middle-class opinion vis-̀a-vis Russia has swung much more widely than lower-class opinion, which was always hostile and suspicious. For the middle-class, Russia became a wartime ally and, for a time, a postwar friend; this has been succeeded by violent hostility. Other studies show the same thing with respect to isolationism and war. On all these matters the middle classes, being caught up in politics and, on the whole, susceptible to the way the mass media present events, are capable of attending to a much more rapid change of signals than the lower classes."
(p. 184)

So, Schickel's "volatile perspectiveless mass" has been a socioeconomic moving target. Perhaps it is whichever classes most eagerly and profligately consume "mass media" in any given time period? It makes perfect sense that this phenomenon would have moved (spread?) downward between the 1950s and 1980s. And so it also makes sense to treat news like experimental medical treatments: avoid large exposures unless your life is at stake!

Stefan Kac said...

Daniel Kahneman
Thinking Fast and Slow (2011)

"[Alex] Todorov has found that people judge competence by combining the two dimensions of strength and trustworthiness. The faces that exude competence combine a strong chin with a slight confident-appearing smile. There is no evidence that these facial features actually predict how well politicians will perform in office. But studies of the brain's response to winning and losing candidates show that we are biologically predisposed to reject candidates who lack the attributes we value...

"Political scientists followed up on Todorov's initial research by identifying a category of voters for whom the automatic preferences of System 1 are particularly likely to play a large role. They found what they were looking for among politically uninformed voters who watch a great deal of television. As expected, the effect of facial competence on voting is about three times larger for information-poor and TV-prone voters than for others who are better informed and watch less television."

(p. 91)

In other words, we're fucked.

Stefan Kac said...

Thaler and Sunstein
Nudge (2008)

"It seems reasonable to say that people make good choices in contexts in which they have experience, good information, and prompt feedback... They do less well in contexts in which they are inexperienced and poorly informed, and in which feedback is slow and infrequent..."

"Generally, the higher the stakes, the less often we are able to practice. Most of us buy houses and cars not more than once or twice a decade, but we are really practiced at grocery shopping."

"The invisible hand works best when products are simple and purchased frequently. We worry very little about consumers being ripped off by their dry cleaners. ... But a mortgage broker who fails to point out that the teaser rate will disappear quickly is long gone by the time the customer gets the bad news."

Seemingly obvious points here, but ultimately they are profound ones. Better+faster "feedback" would settle the vaccine wars! Unfortunately this isn't possible in that particular realm and there's not much we can do about it. More broadly, the fear is that as technological advance, population growth, global interdependence, and centralization of power all continue apace, more and more of our decisions (individual and collective!) will be made in "wicked" decision environments. Science became scarier when it moved beyond lay comprehension. But what's really scary is when life's most basic, quotidian matters are rendered intractably complex by global interdependence.

Stefan Kac said...

N.N. Taleb
Antifragile (2012)

"Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable. Now for reasons that have to do with the increase of the artificial, the move away from ancestral and natural models, and the loss in robustness owing to complications in the design of everything, the role of Black Swans in [sic] increasing."

Stefan Kac said...

Taleb, Antifragile
(hiding in the bibliography)

"Anecdotal knowledge and power of evidence: A reader, Karl Schluze, wrote: "An old teacher and colleague told me (between his sips of bourbon) 'If you cut off the head of a dog and it barks, you don't have to repeat the experiment.'" Easy to get examples: no lawyer would invoke an "N=1" argument in defense of a person, saying "he only killed once"; nobody considers a plane crash as "anecdotal."


"Sometimes researchers call a result "anecdotal" as a knee-jerk reaction when the result is exactly the reverse. Steven Pinker called John Gray's pointing out the two world wars as counterevidence to his story of great moderation "anecdotal." My experience is that social science people rarely know what they are talking about when they talk about "evidence.""


Incidentally, Jane Jacobs also reports being told by academics that her examples of downscaled economic success stories were "anecdotal."

Stefan Kac said...

The Black Swan (2007)

"Show two groups of people a blurry image of a fire hydrant, blurry enough for them not to recognize what it is. For one group, increase the resolution slowly, in ten steps. For the second, do it faster, in five steps. Stop at a point where both groups have been presented an identical image and ask each of them to identify what they see. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps are likely to recognize the hydrant much faster. Moral? The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will form along the way, and the worse off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information." (144)

Stefan Kac said...

The Lonely Crowd

"emergencies in a modern society help recreate social forms into which people can with justification pour their energies. People need justification and, as inner-direction wanes, look for it in the social situation rather than within themselves. European and Asian visitors tell Americans that we must learn to enjoy idleness; they criticize alternately our puritan idealism and the so-called materialism which is a by-product of it. This is not too helpful: for if we are to become autonomous, we must proceed in harmony with our history and character, and these assign us a certain sequence of developmental tasks and pleasures. What we need, then, is a reinterpretation which will allow us to focus on individual character development the puritan demands no longer needed to spur industrial and political organization. [sic] We need to realize that each life is an emergency, which only happens once, and the "saving" of which, in terms of character, justifies care and effort. Then, perhaps, we will not need to run to a war or a fire because the daily grist of life itself is not felt as sufficiently challenging, or because external threats and demands can narcotize for us our anxiety about the quality and meaning of individual difference." (297)

This could be filed almost anywhere, but it might as well go here since this thread is an attempt to reckon with an ongoing "emergency." I think I'm still a liberal, and I think I see other-directed liberals running to this fire. This is not to deny that there is a real emergency. It is to say, rather, that when "the daily grist of life itself is not felt as sufficiently challenging" and when there is much "anxiety about the quality and meaning of individual difference," this makes the "abundance of caution" or "erring on the side of caution" heuristics into the lowest hanging "narcoti[cs]" for many liberals; ditto the "throwing caution to the wind" heuristic for some libertarians and conservatives. This is not quite the same thing as observing that COVID has been politicized. Reasonable people can disagree. We could better afford to be politicized if there was not so much riding (psychologically and otherwise) on staying unified.

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
"The Tough as Narcissus"
p. 141-144
in The Mechanical Bride
(2002 Gingko Press edition) [orig. 1951]
[SK's boldface]

"...the unofficial nation-wide agencies of education, production, distribution, entertainment, and advertisement are friendly neither to diversity nor to inner resistance. The monopolistic trends of intense competition are unfavorable to local talent and tradition alike. And as for resistance, every success drive and sales drive is committed to erasing this in all its varieties. In short, the capital of individual resistance and autonomous existence is being used up at a very visible rate. Is it being replaced? Or is the power of inner renewal increasing in proportion to the increasingly numerous mechanisms for anticipating and controlling the thoughts and feelings of many millions with which the present book is much concerned? It is really impossible to say, but there is no room for complacency. At some point in the mechanistic drama of our time each individual experiences to some degree the attractions and even the fact of submission and surrender. The price of total resistance, like that of total surrender, is still too high.

"Consequently, in practice, everyone is intellectually and emotionally a patchwork quilt of occupied and unoccupied territory. And there are no accepted standards of submission or resistance to commercially sponsored appeals either in reading or living habits. All the more, then, is it urgent to foster habits of inspection until workable standards of securely civilized judgment emerge from those habits. Nation-wide agencies of mental sterilization now make it impossible to repose in mere habits of laissez faire. The low quality of mental habit engendered thus far by universal literacy, when confronted with the extreme complexity of current affairs, cannot be said to produce thought. So that the exhortation to "think for yourself" is, in these circumstances, a cause of discouragement only. It positively encourages a plunge into any collective myth that happens to have appeal."

Stefan Kac said...

Tim Wu
The Attention Merchants (2016)

"What [Walter] Lippmann took from the war—as he explained in his 1922 classic Public Opinion—was the gap between the true complexity of the world and the narratives the public uses to understand it—the rough "stereotypes" (a word he coined in his book). When it came to the war, he believed that the "consent" of the governed had been, in his phrase, "manufactured." Hence, as he wrote, "It is no longer possible...to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify."

"Any communication, Lippmann came to see, is potentially propagandistic, in the sense of propagating a view. For it presents one set of facts, or one perspective, fostering or weakening some "stereotype" held by the mind. It is fair to say, then, that any and all information that one consumes—pays attention to—will have some influence, even if just forcing a reaction. That idea, in turn, has a very radical implication, for it suggests that sometimes we overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives, whether it is our evaluation of a product or a political proposition. And if that is true, in the battle for our attention, there is a particular importance in who gets there first or most often. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected—rural dwellers or the urban poor—who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate."

(pp. 47-48)


Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The Revolt of the Elites (1995)

"During the Great Depression, members of the health, education, and welfare professions were horrified to discover that many Americans, even victims of large-scale unemployment, still clung to the ethic of self-help and refused to acknowledge the individual's right to relief."
(p. 218)


Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The World of Nations (1973)

Ch. XVIII, "Birth, Death, and Technology: The Limits of Cultural Laissez-Faire"

"The anti-utopian and the utopian myths of science have a common root in the assumption that science is an autonomous force, rather than an instrument of the will of the human community, and that its development is inevitable and irresistable."
(p. 301)


Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics

"it would not be an exaggeration to say that the pragmatic test of truth first suggested itself to [William] James in the form of the familiar religious principle that the quality of belief makes itself known in its effects on the conduct of life."
(p. 286)

And so, today, some health care workers won't get vaccinated. This pretty clearly evinces a low "quality of belief" in their own profession!

There are a few different conclusions one could draw from this. To my mind, the one which is most plausible, most salient, and least affected by the caveat that these medically initiated resisters are few in number, is this: cashing a paycheck and professional buy-in have become completely divorced from each other. "Plausible" because it is widely observable elsewhere; and "salient" because it is more parsimonious than a full-on conspiracy theory while carrying (this is my long-winded point) all of the same implications for the rest of us.

This is to say nothing about the wisdom or folly of these resisters. It is to say, rather, that as is so often the case, a proper conspiracy is superfluous here. One might conclude that these workers know something, from the inside as it were, that is driving their resistance. This I doubt in fact while nonetheless suspecting that the "divorce" alluded to above is functionally equivalent to it.

(I myself have felt very little anxiety about getting these particular shots; my anxiety is about the precedent that has been set by both the formal and informal mandates, and the fact that in my own case there was all-but-literally no choice; this owing entirely to non-government decision-makers who are functionally unaccountable to their marks. People who think this was all good and proper policy because it seems like the right thing to do this time have a lot of history to catch up on. Starting with this book would be a kind of shock treatment, probably unpleasant, perhaps cruel, but ultimately very effective.)

"The scientific worldview, he argued, seemingly so "healthy" and "robustious," so "rugged and manly" in its respect for facts, actually concealed a childish desire for certainty. The longing for deliverance from doubt, enshrined in the epistemological tradition of modern philosophy as the distinction between certitude and mere "opinion," had to be regarded not as the beginning of wisdom but as the product of a "weakness of our nature from which we must free ourselves, if we can." Science, at least as it was construed by the Cartesian tradition of philosophy, had inherited the attitude of those who longed to live in a risk-free world. It betrayed an "excessive nervousness" in the face of possible error. Verification, that much-vaunted principle of modern science, was a technique merely for avoiding error, not for wresting truth from chaos. "Better risk loss of truth than chance of error,—that is your faith-vetoer's exact position." It was a position that could never serve as a guide to the conduct of life. The "agnostic rules for truth-seeking" laid down by "scientific absolutists" betrayed a timorous state of mind, an unwillingness to act, a suspension of judgment that ignored the whole field of religious experience and its testimony to the power of faith."
(p. 289)

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
The Culture of Narcissism

"the substitution of symbolically mediated information for immediate experience—of pseudo-events for real events—has not made government more rational and efficient, as both the technocrats and their critics assume. On the contrary, it has given rise to a pervasive air of unreality, which ultimately befuddles the decision makers themselves."
(p. 78)


Stefan Kac said...

Relevant to the "expert" issue.

Stefan Kac said...

Martin Green
New York 1913: The Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant

Quoting Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform:
"To an extraordinary degree, the work of the Progressive movement rested upon its journalism . . . It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind."
(pp. 21-22)

Now Green:

" [Lincoln] Steffens more than anyone else invented the new journalism. When he joined the New York Commercial Advertiser in 1897, he had determined to change the paper and to create a new kind of newspaper writing. He hired new reporters and charged them to "see a murder as a tragedy rather than as a crime, a fire as a drama rather than as police news, and so on. These new journalists were mostly recent graduates from Harvard or some other Ivy League college; they aspired ultimately to write "literature"—it was one of their favorite words..."


Stefan Kac said...

Paul Goodman
Growing Up Absurd

"The Freedom to be Academic" (pp. 256-279)
(online here)

[293] "Both are marked by a booming productivity, much money to spend, a rising standard of living,... At the same time the twenties and the fifties are marked by a profound disillusionment and disgust at the way our civilization has recently disgraced itself. ... But these experiences, too, foster expansion in those who survive and in whom the shell shock thaws out, for people are purged, especially if there has been frank vomiting; and then more daring and radical notions can express themselves with a good conscience, since nothing an individual can think of would be so wicked as what everybody thought of collectively."

Stefan Kac said...

Paul Goodman
"Compulsory Mis-Education" (1964)
in Compulsory Mis-Education and The Community of Scholars

[25] "Perhaps in the present dispensation we should be as well off if it were socially acceptable for large numbers not to read. It would be harder to regiment people if they were not so well "informed"; as Norbert Wiener used to point out, every repetition of a cliché only increases the noise and prevents communication. With less literacy, there would be more folk culture. ... Serious letters could only benefit if society were less swamped by trash, lies, and bland verbiage. Most important of all, more people might become genuinely literate if it were understood that reading is not a matter-of-course but a special useful art with a proper subject-matter, imagination and truth, rather than as a means of communicating top-down decisions and advertising."

Stefan Kac said...

Paul Goodman
Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals

"Applied science" and superstition"
(pp. 22-48)

[25] "Marxist philosophers have insisted on an indissoluble relation, if not formal identity, between science and technology; and in a background sense, this is, in my opinion, true. Especially experimental science would not much exist among peoples who lack elaborate industrial arts; they would not have the data, they would not have the techniques, and they would not consider it important. ...

A dangerous confusion occurs, however, when contemporary science and the current style of technology

come to exist in people's minds as one block, to be necessarily taken as a single whole. The effect of this is that political arguments for some kind or complex of technology, which indeed has been made possible by modern science, are illogically strengthened by the moral excellence, the prestige, and the superstition of science itself. Contrariwise, if anybody opposes the mass production, the export to underdeveloped countries, or the widespread domestic use of certain machines, technical complexes, or therapies, he is sure to be "refuted" as an obscurantist, an irrationalist or esthete, a pessimist or a Luddite. ... Because the adventure of modern science must be pursued, it is concluded that there are no choices in the adoption of scientific technology. This is an error in reasoning, but unfortunately there are powerful vested interests in business and politics throughout the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that want to reinforce this error and probably believe it."

Stefan Kac said...

Paul and Percival Goodman

[191] "Up to, say, sixty years ago, more than half of the productive capacity of our economy was devoted to subsistence;... Now,...less than a tenth of the economy is concerned with subsistence goods. ...the economic machinery could roll almost as usual though everybody were dead of starvation, exposure, and disease. When the situation is viewed in this way, one of the causes is at once clear why prosperity and surplus lead precisely to insecurity: namely, that too few people are busy about subsistence,..."

[212] "supposing such a system of assured subsistence with almost complete freedom of economic ties were put into effect. No doubt for millions of people, no matter how much they might resist the idea in prospect, the first effect would be immense relief,...

"But after this first commonplace effect had worn off, the moral attitude of a people like the Americans would be profoundly deranged. They would be afraid not only of freedom and leisure, which release both creative and destructive drives nicely repressed by routine, but especially of boredom,... For in our times all entertainments and even the personal excitement of romance seem to be bound up with having ready money to spend,...

"The Americans would suddenly find themselves "rescued" from the physical necessity and social pressure which alone, perhaps, had been driving them to their habitual satisfactions. They might soon come to regard commercial pleasures as flat and unpalatable, but they would not suddenly thereby find any others. ...


"Would it be a salutary boredom to make these persons do what they want to do with their time, to discover what they want to do with their lives,...? ... Or would the effect be like the unemployed adolescents on the corner who hang around, apparently unable to think up anything?

... "indeed, in our surplus economy, millions really are technically unemployable—there is no necessary work for them to do,...
Because they are really economically unproductive, they have no culture and no resources of leisure, since culture grows from productive life. ...[in]our scheme of a divided economy...: we provide the subsistence part in an efficient, honorable, and compulsory way; and we leave open the horrendous question: then what?

"The moment when large numbers of people first discover clearly and distinctly that they do not know what they want to do with their time, is fraught with danger."

Stefan Kac said...

Why We Can't Agree about (Some) Basic Facts (revised)

"it appears that people who are better at reasoning engage in more cultural cognition. Put differently, people with more advanced reasoning skills take advantage of those skills and more fully distort the evidence in an effort to conform their beliefs to those of their respective affinity groups."

Stefan Kac said...

Imperfect Cognitions
Refusing the COVID-19 vaccine: What’s wrong with that?

"We argue that vaccine refusers are responsible for their belief that they should not get vaccinated and that they are rational (although mistaken) in holding this belief. ...there is a reason not to use non-argumentative means, such as mandatory vaccination or certain kinds of nudging, to make rational vaccine refusers comply with vaccination recommendations. Although this reason has significant weight, it is pro tanto and can be outweighed by the harm that is caused if a significant part of the population remains unvaccinated."

"Part of our argument is that standard vaccine refusers are inquiring people who allow themselves to be swayed by new incoming evidence."

"...we argue that vaccine refusers respond correctly to their evidence or epistemic reasons. This is because their distrust is often rational, especially when it comes to the experiences of marginalized groups with medical, scientific, and political authorities, and because our epistemic environment is polluted..."

"...although some of their implicit beliefs are likely contradictory or incoherent, these implicit beliefs don’t render vaccine refusers irrational in a sense of ‘irrational’ that implies legitimate criticism or blame."

"...enforcing rational people to comply with what one takes to be morally right can endanger their autonomy."

Stefan Kac said...

Imperfect Cognitions
Leaving the black box treatment of ignorance behind

"When one knows something, one has a justified true belief that a proposition is true (and some an anti-luck condition is met), or maybe something like knowledge-first epistemology is correct.

"But ignorance is much more varied: when one is ignorant, one can disbelieve a true proposition, one can suspend judgment on it, one can waver and not yet have adopted an attitude towards it, one can never have thought about it, or one may even lack the conceptual resources to consider it.

"Things get even more intriguing when we move to the realm of social epistemology: a group knows as a group when at least some members of the group have knowledge, particularly the operative members, but, remarkably, a group can be ignorant even when most or all members have knowledge."

Stefan Kac said...

Imperfect Cognitions
Explanation and Values

"Seven years ago...I described a study aimed at investigating the relationship between explanatory judgement, moral offense and the value-free ideal of science. ...our study showed that the more you perceive the conclusion of a scientific study as morally offensive, the more likely you are to reject it as bad science."

More recently,
"Focusing on the concepts of climate change, healthy nutrition, poverty, and effective medical drug, we found that public understanding of these notions is limited, with older age and liberal political values being the strongest predictors of correctly understanding them.

"In particular, thick concepts like poverty and health are more accurately understood than descriptive concepts like anthropogenic climate change. ...our results also indicated an illusion of explanatory depth... Would then puncturing the illusion of explanatory depth ameliorate people’s imperfect cognitions?

"... We did not find support for this hypothesis, but exploratory analyses indicated that the hypothesized effect occurred for political moderates, but not for people who identified as strong liberals/conservatives."

Yet another study
"revealed that intellectually humble people exhibit lower levels of prejudice towards members of groups they perceive as dissimilar; surprisingly, however, it also showed that more intellectual humility was associated with more prejudice overall, which need not be symptomatic of imperfect cognition and is consistent with the role of cultivating intellectual humility for promoting responsible inquiry in the face of diversity and morally offensive science."

Stefan Kac said...

Ernest Becker
The Denial of Death

[283] "The soberest conclusion that we could make about what has actually been taking place on the planet for about three billion years is that it is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer. But the sun distracts our attention, always baking the blood dry, making things grow over it,...

"Science and religion merge in a critique of the deadening of perception of this kind of truth, and science betrays us when it is willing to absorb lived truth all into itself. Here the criticism of all behaviorist psychology, all manipulations of men, and all coercive utopianism comes to rest. These techniques try to make the world other than it is, legislate the grotesque out of it, inaugurate a "proper" human condition. ... Even Freud—Enlightenment man that he was, after all—wanted to see a saner world and seemed willing to absorb lived truth into science if only it were possible. He once mused that in order to really change things by therapy one would have to get at the masses of men; ...to coerce, by transference, a less evil world. But Freud knew better, as he gradually came to see that the evil in the world is not only in the insides of people but on the outside, in nature—which is why he became more realistic and pessimistic in his later work.

"The problem with all the scientific manipulators is that somehow they don't take life seriously enough; in this sense, all science is "bourgeois," an affair of bureaucrats. I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation,
of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved from within the subjective energies of creatures, without deadening, with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow. How do we know—with Rilke—that our part of the meaning of the universe might not be a rhythm in sorrow? Manipulative, utopian science, by deadening human sensitivity, would also deprive men of the heroic in their urge to victory. And we know that in some very important way this falsifies our struggle by emptying us, by preventing us from incorporating the maximum of experience. It means the end of the distinctively human—or even, we must say, the distinctively organismic."


Stefan Kac said...

Richard Maltby
Harmless Entertainment:
Hollywood and the Ideology of Consensus


[section heading: "REASONABLE BELIEFS"]

"Liberals' commitment to material progress necessitated that technological advance be regarded as, in itself, a social goal. The tension...was that the mechanics of technology were ideologically required to work for the betterment of man in society, and yet the imperatives of professional expertise and "pure research" insisted that they remain free from social control--... Atomic weaponry questioned the benign potential of technology, but, perversely, required the ever more fervent assertion of that article of faith. The danger was again displaced: ...
...from the fact of the Bomb, which, of course, no rational man would ever use, to the possibility of that crazy finger on the button. The existence of such totalitarian weaponry gave credence to the need for eternal vigilance, and the need to compromise liberal idealism with the realism that accepted totalitarian forms of debate. Locked into their technological ideology, liberals located the threat as coming not from the Bomb, but from the fact that someone, specifically the Russians, might use it. ...

"... One solution, covertly practiced much more than it was openly articulated, was the adoption of a behaviorist psychology, which proposed applying the principles of a mechanistic, "objective" rationality to the study of man. This was a model of displacement at its most assertive: if man could be understood as if he were a machine, then the question of control became mechanically answered. Man was rendered redundant by default. Yet while this solution was to all practical purposes adopted in the automation of industrial processes and the application of military technology, it remained philosophically unacceptable to liberal idealists.

"Instead, they sought perversely to assert man's supriority over the machine by stressing his irrationality or at least his capacity for irrational action. The unpredictability of human behavior became, for many liberals, a necessary, if somewhat uncomfortable, virtue. But such a fundamental contradiction required some mediating device to disguise and displace it. To counteract its insecurities, liberalism instituted the humanitarian concept of understanding, a word whose meaning crucially blurred the distinctions between compassion and comprehension. Understanding could, at the same time, accommodate a behaviorist model of mechanistic comprehension and an assertion of human uniqueness through a capacity for shared emotional response. Understanding is perhaps the most important single term in the liberal lexicon; a catch-all word whose semantic ambivalence can cover a multitude of inexact expressions in a haze of sentimental rhetoric. Understanding was an emotional quality
rather than an intellectual process."


Stefan Kac said...

Capital, Vol. 1
Ch. 10, sec. 2

"Crises during which production is interrupted and the factories work “short time,” i.e., for only a part of the week, naturally do not affect the tendency to extend the working day. The less business there is, the more profit has to be made on the business done. The less time spent in work, the more of that time has to be turned into surplus labour-time.

"Thus the Factory Inspector’s report on the period of the crisis from 1857 to 1858:

“It may seem inconsistent that there should be any overworking at a time when trade is so bad; but that very badness leads to the transgression by unscrupulous men, they get the extra profit of it. ...

“For a great part of the time,” says Mr. Howell, “owing to the depression of trade, many factories were altogether closed, and a still greater number were working short time. I continue, however, to receive about the usual number of complaints that half, or three-quarters of an hour in the day, are snatched from the workers by encroaching upon the times professedly allowed for rest and refreshment.”"