Are some ideas too ridiculous to bother with?

Apr 22 JDN 2458231

Flat Earth. Young-Earth Creationism. Reptilians. 9/11 “Truth”. Rothschild conspiracies.

There are an astonishing number of ideas that satisfy two apparently-contrary conditions:

  1. They are so obviously ridiculous that even a few minutes of honest, rational consideration of evidence that is almost universally available will immediately refute them;
  2. They are believed by tens or hundreds of millions of otherwise-intelligent people.

Young-Earth Creationism is probably the most alarming, seeing as it grips the minds of some 38% of Americans.

What should we do when faced with such ideas? This is something I’ve struggled with before.

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to actively address and refute them—but I don’t think I’ve even once actually persuaded someone who believes these ideas to change their mind. This doesn’t mean my time and effort were entirely wasted; it’s possible that I managed to convince bystanders, or gained some useful understanding, or simply improved my argumentation skills. But it does seem likely that my time and effort were mostly wasted.

It’s tempting, therefore, to give up entirely, and just let people go on believing whatever nonsense they want to believe. But there’s a rather serious downside to that as well: Thirty-eight percent of Americans.

These people vote. They participate in community decisions. They make choices that affect the rest of our lives. Nearly all of those Creationists are Evangelical Christians—and White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly in favor of Donald Trump. I can’t be sure that changing their minds about the age of the Earth would also change their minds about voting for Trump, but I can say this: If all the Creationists in the US had simply not voted, Hillary Clinton would have won the election.

And let’s not leave the left wing off the hook either. Jill Stein is a 9/11 “Truther”, and pulled a lot of fellow “Truthers” to her cause in the election as well. Had all of Jill Stein’s votes gone to Hillary Clinton instead, again Hillary would have won, even if all the votes for Trump had remained the same. (That said, there is reason to think that if Stein had dropped out, most of those folks wouldn’t have voted at all.)

Therefore, I don’t think it is safe to simply ignore these ridiculous beliefs. We need to do something; the question is what.

We could try to censor them, but first of all that violates basic human rights—which should be a sufficient reason not to do it—and second, it probably wouldn’t even work. Censorship typically leads to radicalization, not assimilation.

We could try to argue against them. Ideally this would be the best option, but it has not shown much effect so far. The kind of person who sincerely believes that the Earth is 6,000 years old (let alone that governments are secretly ruled by reptilian alien invaders) isn’t the kind of person who is highly responsive to evidence and rational argument.

In fact, there is reason to think that these people don’t actually believe what they say the same way that you and I believe things. I’m not saying they’re lying, exactly. They think they believe it; they want to believe it. They believe in believing it. But they don’t actually believe it—not the way that I believe that cyanide is poisonous or the way I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. It isn’t fully integrated into the way that they anticipate outcomes and choose behaviors. It’s more of a free-floating sort of belief, where professing a particular belief allows them to feel good about themselves, or represent their status in a community.

To be clear, it isn’t that these beliefs are unimportant to them; on the contrary, they are in some sense more important. Creationism isn’t really about the age of the Earth; it’s about who you are and where you belong. A conventional belief can be changed by evidence about the world because it is about the world; a belief-in-belief can’t be changed by evidence because it was never really about that.

But if someone’s ridiculous belief is really about their identity, how do we deal with that? I can’t refute an identity. If your identity is tied to a particular social group, maybe they could ostracize you and cause you to lose the identity; but an outsider has no power to do that. (Even then, I strongly suspect that, for instance, most excommunicated Catholics still see themselves as Catholic.) And if it’s a personal identity not tied to a particular group, even that option is unavailable.

Where, then, does that leave us? It would seem that we can’t change their minds—but we also can’t afford not to change their minds. We are caught in a terrible dilemma.

I think there might be a way out. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I think what we need to do is stop taking them seriously as beliefs, and start treating them purely as announcements of identity.

So when someone says something like, “The Rothschilds run everything!”, instead of responding as though this were a coherent proposition being asserted, treat it as if someone had announced, “Boo! I hate the Red Sox!” Belief in the Rothschild conspiracies isn’t a well-defined set of propositions about the world; it’s an assertion of membership in a particular sort of political sect that is vaguely left-wing and anarchist. You don’t really think the Rothschilds rule everything. You just want to express your (quite justifiable) anger at how our current political system privileges the rich.

Likewise, when someone says they think the Earth is 6,000 years old, you could try to present the overwhelming scientific evidence that they are wrong—but it might be more productive, and it is certainly easier, to just think of this as a funny way of saying “I’m an Evangelical Christian”.

Will this eliminate the ridiculous beliefs? Not immediately. But it might ultimately do so, in the following way: By openly acknowledging the belief-in-belief as a signaling mechanism, we can open opportunities for people to develop new, less pathological methods of signaling. (Instead of saying you think the Earth is 6,000 years old, maybe you could wear a funny hat, like Orthodox Jews do. Funny hats don’t hurt anybody. Everyone loves funny hats.) People will always want to signal their identity, and there are fundamental reasons why such signals will typically be costly for those who use them; but we can try to make them not so costly for everyone else.

This also makes arguments a lot less frustrating, at least at your end. It might make them more frustrating at the other end, because people want their belief-in-belief to be treated like proper belief, and you’ll be refusing them that opportunity. But this is not such a bad thing; if we make it more frustrating to express ridiculous beliefs in public, we might manage to reduce the frequency of such expression.

How do we reach people with ridiculous beliefs?

Oct 16, JDN 2457678

One of the most unfortunate facts in the world—indeed, perhaps the most unfortunate fact, from which most other unfortunate facts follow—is that it is quite possible for a human brain to sincerely and deeply hold a belief that is, by any objective measure, totally and utterly ridiculous.

And to be clear, I don’t just mean false; I mean ridiculous. People having false beliefs is an inherent part of being finite beings in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Monetarists are wrong, but they are not ludicrous. String theorists are wrong, but they are not absurd. Multiregionalism is wrong, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, I, like anyone else, am probably wrong about a great many things, though of course if I knew which ones I’d change my mind. (Indeed, I admit a small but nontrivial probability of being wrong about the three things I just listed.)

I mean ridiculous beliefs. I mean that any rational, objective assessment of the probability of that belief being true would be vanishingly small, 1 in 1 million at best. I’m talking about totally nonsensical beliefs, beliefs that go against overwhelming evidence; some of them are outright incoherent. Yet millions of people go on believing them.

For example, over 40% of Americans believe that human beings were created by God in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, and typically offer no evidence for this besides “The Bible says so.” (Strictly speaking, even that isn’t true—standard interpretations of the Bible say so. The Bible itself contains no clearly stated date for creation.) This despite the absolutely overwhelming body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution by Darwinian natural selection.

Over a third of Americans don’t believe in global warming, which is not only a complete consensus among all credible climate scientists based on overwhelming evidence, but one of the central threats facing human civilization over the 21st century. On a global scale this is rather like standing on a train track and saying you don’t believe in trains. (Or like the time my mother once told me about where an alert went out to her office that there was a sniper in the area, indiscriminately shooting at civilians, and one of her co-workers refused to join the security protocol and declared smugly, “I don’t believe in snipers.” Fortunately, he was unharmed in the incident. This time.)

1/4 of Americans believe in astrology, and 1/4 Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth. (Not sure if it’s the same 1/4. Probably considerable but not total overlap.) The existence of extraterrestrial civilizations somewhere in this mind-bogglingly (perhaps infinitely) vast universe has probability 1. But visiting us is quite another matter, and there is absolutely no credible evidence of it. As for astrology? I shouldn’t have to explain why the position of Jupiter, much less Sirius, on your birthday is not a major influence on your behavior or life outcomes. Your obstetrician exerted more gravitational force on you than Jupiter did at the moment you were born.

The majority of Americans believe in telepathy or extrasensory perception. I confess that I actually did when I was very young, though I think I disabused myself of this around the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

I love the term “extrasensory perception” because it is such an oxymoron; if you’re perceiving, it is via senses. “Sixth sense” is better, except that we actually already have at least nine senses: The ones you probably know, vision (sight), audition (hearing), olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), and tactition (touch)—and the ones you may not know, thermoception (heat), proprioception (body position), vestibulation (balance), and nociception (pain). These can probably be subdivided further—vision and spatial reasoning are dissociated in blind people, heat and cold are separate nerve pathways, pain and itching are distinct systems, and there are a variety of different sensors used for proprioception. So we really could have as many as twenty senses, depending on how you’re counting.

What about telepathy? Well, that is not actually impossible in principle; it’s just that there’s no evidence that humans actually do it. Smartphones do it almost literally constantly, transmitting data via high-frequency radio waves back and forth to one another. We could have evolved some sort of radio transceiver organ (perhaps an offshoot of an electric defense organ such as that of electric eels), but as it turns out we didn’t. Actually in some sense—which some might say is trivial, but I think it’s actually quite deep—we do have telepathy; it’s just that we transmit our thoughts not via radio waves or anything more exotic, but via sound waves (speech) and marks on paper (writing) and electronic images (what you’re reading right now). Human beings really do transmit our thoughts to one another, and this truly is a marvelous thing we should not simply take for granted (it is one of our most impressive feats of Mundane Magic); but somehow I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say they believe in psychic telepathy.

And lest you think this is a uniquely American phenomenon: The particular beliefs vary from place to place, but bizarre beliefs abound worldwide, from conspiracy theories in the UK to 9/11 “truthers” in Canada to HIV denialism in South Africa (fortunately on the wane). The American examples are more familiar to me and most of my readers are Americans, but wherever you are reading from, there are probably ridiculous beliefs common there.

I could go on, listing more objectively ridiculous beliefs that are surprisingly common; but the more I do that, the more I risk alienating you, in case you should happen to believe one of them. When you add up the dizzying array of ridiculous beliefs one could hold, odds are that most people you’d ever meet will have at least one of them. (“Not me!” you’re thinking; and perhaps you’re right. Then again, I’m pretty sure that the 4% or so of people who believe in the Reptilians think the same thing.)

Which brings me to my real focus: How do we reach these people?

One possible approach would be to just ignore them, leave them alone, or go about our business with them as though they did not have ridiculous beliefs. This is in fact the right thing to do under most circumstances, I think; when a stranger on the bus starts blathering about how the lizard people are going to soon reveal themselves and establish the new world order, I don’t think it’s really your responsibility to persuade that person to realign their beliefs with reality. Nodding along quietly would be acceptable, and it would be above and beyond the call of duty to simply say, “Um, no… I’m fairly sure that isn’t true.”

But this cannot always be the answer, if for no other reason than the fact that we live in a democracy, and people with ridiculous beliefs frequently vote according to them. Then people with ridiculous beliefs can take office, and make laws that affect our lives. Actually this would be true even if we had some other system of government; there’s nothing in particular to stop monarchs, hereditary senates, or dictators from believing ridiculous things. If anything, the opposite; dictators are known for their eccentricity precisely because there are no checks on their behavior.

At some point, we’re going to need to confront the fact that over half of the Republicans in the US Congress do not believe in climate change, and are making policy accordingly, rolling drunk on petroleum and treating the hangover with the hair of the dog.

We’re going to have to confront the fact that school boards in Southern states, particularly Texas, continually vote to censor biology textbooks of their dreaded Darwinian evolution.

So we really do need to find a way to talk to people who have ridiculous beliefs, and engage with them, understand why they think the way they do, and then—hopefully at least—tilt them a little bit back toward rational reality. You will not be able to change their mind completely right away, but if each of us can at least chip away at their edifice of absurdity, then all together perhaps we can eventually bring them to enlightenment.

Of course, a good start is probably not to say you think that their beliefs are ridiculous, because people get very defensive when you do that, even—perhaps especially—when it’s true. People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.

This is the link that we must somehow break. We must show people that they are not defined by their beliefs, that it is okay to change your mind. We must be patient and compassionate—sometimes heroically so, as people spout offensive nonsense in our faces, sometimes offensive nonsense that directly attacks us personally. (“Atheists deserve Hell”, taken literally, would constitute something like a death threat except infinitely worse. While to them it very likely is just reciting a slogan, to the atheist listening it says that you believe that they are so evil, so horrible that they deserve eternal torture for believing what they do. And you get mad when we say your beliefs are ridiculous?)

We must also remind people that even very smart people can believe very dumb things—indeed, I’d venture a guess that most dumb things are in fact believed by smart people. Even the most intelligent human beings can only glimpse a tiny fraction of the universe, and all human brains are subject to the same fundamental limitations, the same core heuristics and biases. Make it clear that you’re saying you think their beliefs are false, not that they are stupid or crazy. And indeed, make it clear to yourself that this is indeed what you believe, because it ought to be. It can be tempting to think that only an idiot would believe something so ridiculous—and you are safe, for you are no idiot!—but the truth is far more humbling: Human brains are subject to many flaws, and guarding the fortress of the mind against error and deceit is a 24-7 occupation. Indeed, I hope that you will ask yourself: “What beliefs do I hold that other people might find ridiculous? Are they, in fact, ridiculous?”

Even then, it won’t be easy. Most people are strongly resistant to any change in belief, however small, and it is in the nature of ridiculous beliefs that they require radical changes in order to restore correspondence with reality. So we must try in smaller steps.

Maybe don’t try to convince them that 9/11 was actually the work of Osama bin Laden; start by pointing out that yes, steel does bend much more easily at the temperature at which jet fuel burns. Maybe don’t try to persuade them that astrology is meaningless; start by pointing out the ways that their horoscope doesn’t actually seem to fit them, or could be made to fit anybody. Maybe don’t try to get across the real urgency of climate change just yet, and instead point out that the “study” they read showing it was a hoax was clearly funded by oil companies, who would perhaps have a vested interest here. And as for ESP? I think it’s a good start just to point out that we have more than five senses already, and there are many wonders of the human brain that actual scientists know about well worth exploring—so who needs to speculate about things that have no scientific evidence?

How is the economy doing?

JDN 2457033 EST 12:22.

Whenever you introduce yourself to someone as an economist, you will typically be asked a single question: “How is the economy doing?” I’ve already experienced this myself, and I don’t have very many dinner parties under my belt.

It’s an odd question, for a couple of reasons: First, I didn’t say I was a macroeconomic forecaster. That’s a very small branch of economics—even a small branch of macroeconomics. Second, it is widely recognized among economists that our forecasters just aren’t very good at what they do. But it is the sort of thing that pops into people’s minds when they hear the word “economist”, so we get asked it a lot.

Why are our forecasts so bad? Some argue that the task is just inherently too difficult due to the chaotic system involved; but they used to say that about weather forecasts, and yet with satellites and computer models our forecasts are now far more accurate than they were 20 years ago. Others have argued that “politics always dominates over economics”, as though politics were somehow a fundamentally separate thing, forever exogenous, a parameter in our models that cannot be predicted. I have a number of economic aphorisms I’m trying to popularize; the one for this occasion is: “Nothing is exogenous.” (Maybe fundamental constants of physics? But actually many physicists think that those constants can be derived from even more fundamental laws.) My most common is “It’s the externalities, stupid.”; next is “It’s not the incentives, it’s the opportunities.”; and the last is “Human beings are 90% rational. But woe betide that other 10%.” In fact, it’s not quite true that all our macroeconomic forecasters are bad; a few, such as Krugman, are actually quite good. The Klein Award is given each year to the best macroeconomic forecasters, and the same names pop up too often for it to be completely random. (Sadly, one of the most common is Citigroup, meaning that our banksters know perfectly well what they’re doing when they destroy our economy—they just don’t care.) So in fact I think our failures of forecasting are not inevitable or permanent.

And of course that’s not what I do at all. I am a cognitive economist; I study how economic systems behave when they are run by actual human beings, rather than by infinite identical psychopaths. I’m particularly interested in what I call the tribal paradigm, the way that people identify with groups and act in the interests of those groups, how much solidarity people feel for each other and why, and what role ideology plays in that identification. I’m hoping to one day formally model solidarity and make directly testable predictions about things like charitable donations, immigration policies and disaster responses.

I do have a more macroeconomic bent than most other cognitive economists; I’m not just interested in how human irrationality affects individuals or corporations, I’m also interested in how it affects society as a whole. But unlike most macroeconomists I care more about inequality than unemployment, and hardly at all about inflation. Unless you start getting 40% inflation per year, inflation really isn’t that harmful—and can you imagine what 40% unemployment would be like? (Also, while 100% inflation is awful, 100% unemployment would be no economy at all.) If we’re going to have a “misery index“, it should weight unemployment at least 10 times as much as inflation—and it should also include terms for poverty and inequality. Frankly maybe we should just use poverty, since I’d be prepared to accept just about any level of inflation, unemployment, or even inequality if it meant eliminating poverty. This is of course is yet another reason why a basic income is so great! An anti-poverty measure can really only be called a failure if it doesn’t actually reduce poverty; the only way that could happen with a basic income is if it somehow completely destabilized the economy, which is extremely unlikely as long as the basic income isn’t something ridiculous like $100,000 per year.

I could probably talk about my master’s thesis; the econometric models are relatively arcane, but the basic idea of correlating the income concentration of the top 1% of 1% and the level of corruption is something most people can grasp easily enough.

Of course, that wouldn’t be much of an answer to “How is the economy doing?”; usually my answer is to repeat what I’ve last read from mainstream macroeconomic forecasts, which is usually rather banal—but maybe that’s the idea? Most small talk is pretty banal I suppose (I never was very good at that sort of thing). It sounds a bit like this: No, we’re not on the verge of horrible inflation—actually inflation is currently too low. (At this point someone will probably bring up the gold standard, and I’ll have to explain that the gold standard is an unequivocally terrible idea on so, so many levels. The gold standard caused the Great Depression.) Unemployment is gradually improving, and actually job growth is looking pretty good right now; but wages are still stagnant, which is probably what’s holding down inflation. We could have prevented the Second Depression entirely, but we didn’t because Republicans are terrible at managing the economy—all of the 10 most recent recessions and almost 80% of the recessions in the last century were under Republican presidents. Instead the Democrats did their best to implement basic principles of Keynesian macroeconomics despite Republican intransigence, and we muddled through. In another year or two we will actually be back at an unemployment rate of 5%, which the Federal Reserve considers “full employment”. That’s already problematic—what about that other 5%?—but there’s another problem as well: Much of our reduction in unemployment has come not from more people being employed but instead by more people dropping out of the labor force. Our labor force participation rate is the lowest it’s been since 1978, and is still trending downward. Most of these people aren’t getting jobs; they’re giving up. At best we may hope that they are people like me, who gave up on finding work in order to invest in their own education, and will return to the labor force more knowledgeable and productive one day—and indeed, college participation rates are also rising rapidly. And no, that doesn’t mean we’re becoming “overeducated”; investment in education, so-called “human capital”, is literally the single most important factor in long-term economic output, by far. Education is why we’re not still in the Stone Age. Physical capital can be replaced, and educated people will do so efficiently. But all the physical capital in the world will do you no good if nobody knows how to use it. When everyone in the world is a millionaire with two PhDs and all our work is done by robots, maybe then you can say we’re “overeducated”—and maybe then you’d still be wrong. Being “too educated” is like being “too rich” or “too happy”.

That’s usually enough to placate my interlocutor. I should probably count my blessings, for I imagine that the first confrontation you get at a dinner party if you say you are a biologist involves a Creationist demanding that you “prove evolution”. I like to think that some mathematical biologists—yes, that’s a thing—take their request literally and set out to mathematically prove that if allele distributions in a population change according to a stochastic trend then the alleles with highest expected fitness have, on average, the highest fitness—which is what we really mean by “survival of the fittest”. The more formal, the better; the goal is to glaze some Creationist eyes. Of course that’s a tautology—but so is literally anything that you can actually prove. Cosmologists probably get similar demands to “prove the Big Bang”, which sounds about as annoying. I may have to deal with gold bugs, but I’ll take them over Creationists any day.

What do other scientists get? When I tell people I am a cognitive scientist (as a cognitive economist I am sort of both an economist and a cognitive scientist after all), they usually just respond with something like “Wow, you must be really smart.”; which I suppose is true enough, but always strikes me as an odd response. I think they just didn’t know enough about the field to even generate a reasonable-sounding question, whereas with economists they always have “How is the economy doing?” handy. Political scientists probably get “Who is going to win the election?” for the same reason. People have opinions about economics, but they don’t have opinions about cognitive science—or rather, they don’t think they do. Actually most people have an opinion about cognitive science that is totally and utterly ridiculous, more on a par with Creationists than gold bugs: That is, most people believe in a soul that survives after death. This is rather like believing that after your computer has been smashed to pieces and ground back into the sand from whence it came, all the files you had on it are still out there somewhere, waiting to be retrieved. No, they’re long gone—and likewise your memories and your personality will be long gone once your brain has rotted away. Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots; when the tiny robots stop working the soul is no more. Everything you are is a result of the functioning of your brain. This does not mean that your feelings are not real or do not matter; they are just as real and important as you thought they were. What it means is that when a person’s brain is destroyed, that person is destroyed, permanently and irrevocably. This is terrifying and difficult to accept; but it is also most definitely true. It is as solid a fact as any in modern science. Many people see a conflict between evolution and religion; but the Pope has long since rendered that one inert. No, the real conflict, the basic fact that undermines everything religion is based upon, is not in biology but in cognitive science. It is indeed the Basic Fact of Cognitive Science: We are our brains, no more and no less. (But I suppose it wouldn’t be polite to bring that up at dinner parties.)

The “You must be really smart.” response is probably what happens to physicists and mathematicians. Quantum mechanics confuses basically everyone, so few dare go near it. The truly bold might try to bring up Schrodinger’s Cat, but are unlikely to understand the explanation of why it doesn’t work. General relativity requires thinking in tensors and four-dimensional spaces—perhaps they’ll be asked the question “What’s inside a black hole?”, which of course no physicist can really answer; the best answer may actually be, “What do you mean, inside?” And if a mathematician tries to explain their work in lay terms, it usually comes off as either incomprehensible or ridiculous: Stokes’ Theorem would be either “the integral of a differential form over the boundary of some orientable manifold is equal to the integral of its exterior derivative over the whole manifold” or else something like “The swirliness added up inside an object is equal to the swirliness added up around the edges.”

Economists, however, always seem to get this one: “How is the economy doing?”

Right now, the answer is this: “It’s still pretty bad, but it’s getting a lot better. Hopefully the new Congress won’t screw that up.”