Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why can't we all just get along? Because the laws of physics forbid it.

The Boston Globe recently published an interesting story about how facts backfire:


It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. ... This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.


What is surprising to me is not so much that facts cause people to become more entrenched in their beliefs -- whatever those might happen to be -- but rather how hard it is to convince people who claim to hew to the facts that this is so. The idea that more faithful adherence to objective fact will cause people's views to converge is supported by neither theory nor observation, but rather by a blind faith that Truth Will Prevail somehow.

To be sure there are circumstances where objective metaphysical truth can be very useful with respect to certain measures of utility. If you're trying to build a bridge, for example, you'll probably have better luck if you do the math than if you pray. But if you're trying to, for example, mobilize a large group of people to work together towards a common goal, you might do better by promulgating ideas that are not scientifically demonstrable (or, more to the point, falsifiable), like the idea that you are anointed by God.

But, counter the Hitchenses and the Dawkinses and the Harrises of the world, if you base your actions on a fiction then, being unconstrained by objective reality, anything is permissible, and all manner of evils predictably result: Slavery. Oppression of women. War. (It is, not coincidentally, ironic and revealing that this is exactly the same critique that is raised by the other side of the debate: if you are unconstrained by the Word of God then anything goes.)

And yet even a moment's reflection will reveal the flaw in this reasoning. It is simply not the case that "anything goes" in fiction. I cannot, for example, simply stand up on a soap box in the town square and proclaim myself to be anointed by God and expect anyone to take me seriously. The promulgation of ideas proceeds according to the laws of physics no less than the promulgation of genes. That the laws of the promulgation of ideas are not as widely known or as well understood does not change the fact that they are, in fact, in effect.

Ideas are information, and so they propagate by processes that are by now pretty well understood. Because they propagate by making copies of themselves, and because the resources required to make those copies are limited, they are subject to the laws of Darwinian evolution: ideas that are better at copying themselves make more copies and so are more likely to propagate. Being objectively true might offer a competitive advantage in some situations, but there is nothing fundamental about "truth" that makes it any more likely to propagate than fiction.

Consider the Shakers. The Shakers were a religious sect that, among other things, preached celibacy not just for priests but for everyone. Universal celibacy is not an idea that reproduces well. By way of contrast, the idea that one should be fruitful and multiply, and that abortion and contraception are evil, is an idea that reproduces extremely well. So it should come as no surprise that there are more Catholics and Mormons in the world than Shakers.

The relationship between ideas and their ecosystem (human brains and information-storing artifacts like books and computers) is an extremely complex symbiotic relationship. Ideas cannot exist without human brains to "live" in, and some ideas (like antibiotics) in turn provide benefits to brains. But sometimes -- and this is crucial -- the interests of brains and ideas are in conflict. For example, a brain that came to understand enough about objective reality might figure out how to have sex without producing offspring. The ideas resident in such a brain would then be deprived of one of their chief means of reproduction, namely, the ability to transfer into the pliable neural networks of newly formed brains that are captive audiences to their parents. On the other hand, the ideas resident in such brains might have access to other means of reproduction that would not otherwise have been available to them, like the Internet. But the fate of the idea that one should exercise conscious control over one's biological reproduction will ultimately be decided by evolution, not deliberation.

There is one aspect of the complex interplay between brains and ideas that ought to be deeply worrisome to anyone who values rationality: it is not necessary for a brain or an idea to be rational in order to benefit from the fruits of rationality. Antibiotics work equally well whether or not you believe in evolution. The Internet is equally accessible to the scientist as to the religious fanatic. As long as this is so, rationality will to a certain extent be self-undermining because the indiscriminate proliferation of the products of rationality helps irrationality to reproduce.

Viewed in this way it is no surprise that ideas become entrenched in brains in ways that make them impervious to facts. It's a defense mechanism. Ideas that resist facts have, all else being equal, a reproductive advantage over ideas that yield to them. It is dismaying how hard it is to get otherwise intelligent people to understand this. But it is not at all surprising.

8 comments:

Don Geddis said...

I like your observation that the fear that "anything is permissible" given the assumptions of "the other side", happens to be parallel for both the atheists and religious folks.

Dan said...

I really loved reading this essay. I think it's a fascinating subject and well-written. I have a couple thoughts about it:

You say that "there is nothing fundamental about "truth" that makes it any more likely to propagate than fiction." But I wonder if there isn't something fundamental about truth in that it can be independently verified repeatedly. Truth can't be disproven. I do recognize that the point seems to be that what can be proven actually doesn't really matter if people don't already believe it. It still just seems like a very unique advantage over fiction in terms of ideas.

Toward the end of the article you seem to be creating a false dichotomy between brains which are rational and brains which are not. It seems to me that most real world brains are somewhere in the middle. My intuition says that there would actually be benefits to being further along the rational spectrum when it comes to using products of rationality. For instance, computer engineers I know seem better able to use a computer for anything, from word processing to web browsing. Another example might be that most people can drive fine, I would expect a mechanic to be a better driver than I am because he or she has a deeper understanding of the workings of the vehicle. What are your thoughts on this?

Finally one of the things I loved most about this was that the reception of this result (rejected by those who claim to submit to rationality) is exactly what the theory predicts. If all learned people accepted this result it would actually undermine the result. I got a kick out of how self-referential it was.

Ron said...

> I really loved reading this essay

Thanks!

> Truth can't be disproven

Sure it can. Happens all the time.

http://www.google.com/search?q=proof+that+evolution+is+false

http://www.google.com/search?q=proof+that+god+exists

> Toward the end of the article you seem to be creating a false dichotomy between brains which are rational and brains which are not.

That was certainly not my intent. Rationality -- in both brains and ideas -- is a continuum, not a dichotomy.

> there would actually be benefits to being further along the rational spectrum when it comes to using products of rationality

That's certainly true to some extent, but 1) it's far from clear whether this marginal advantage results in a net benefit from the point of view of evolution. Evolution only cares about one quality metric, and understanding the lambda calculus ain't it. If the cost of being smart enough to use a computer is being "smart" enough to have fewer children that could still be a net loss in terms of reproductive fitness. And 2) rational people put a lot of effort into making the fruits of rationality accessible to irrational people (for economic reasons). There is a wonderful scene in the movie "Jesus Camp" (which I strongly recommend) where a bunch of born again Christians are gathered around a laptop PC praying that PowerPoint won't crash during their presentations about creationism. It is far from clear that a rational person could do better in this regard.

> I got a kick out of how self-referential it was.

Yeah, it's interesting how rationality undermines itself this way. Reminiscent of Goedel.

Dan said...

> Sure it can. Happens all the time.
> http://www.google.com/search?q=proof+that+evolution+is+false
> http://www.google.com/search?q=proof+that+god+exists

I think the question of God's existence is not proved one way or the other. And it seems like with the theory of evolution there isn't proof that it's wrong. Googling for it will find attempts to come up with counter-examples and evidence against the theory but it won't come up with proof that it's wrong.

Are you pointing out that the theory of evolution has itself changed over time? My interpretation is that the initial theory Darwin had was wrong, but on the right track in some ways and so was improved upon over time. So if you make the argument that Darwin's theory was disproven, I would counter with the argument that his theory was not true. There's a problem with black and white, true or false here. To clarify I would say that the parts of his theory which were disproven were parts which weren't true to begin with.

I compare the world around us and how it actually works (truth) with our understanding of the world around us. Since science is the process of proposing theories to explain the way the world works and then testing them, I think of all possible theories as a wooden block and science is the process of whittling that wooden block down by rejecting theories we prove to be false until our carving begins to resemble reality more and more. It can never be perfect, but it does seem like the process makes progress over time.

Are you talking about truth being our collective agreement of what is true versus the underlying reality which none of us may even know?

Don Geddis said...

Dan, I suspect that Ron was pointing out that we don't have a perfect box which can evaluate proofs. When you say that "truth can't be disproven", you mean in a logical sense, that no valid proof from valid assumptions can prove that an actual true statement is false.

But Ron is pointing out that the actual human exercise of coming up with logical-like proofs, is not this perfect system you imagine in the abstract. In point of fact, lots of people come up with lots of things that appear to be either proofs of false statements, or disproofs of true statements. You're fooling yourself if you think that it is always trivial to recognize the error in these false (dis)proofs.

As to whether Darwin was "wrong", I think Asimov expressed it well: When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Your wooden block analogy is a reasonable one, though.

Ron said...

> But Ron is pointing out that the actual human exercise of coming up with logical-like proofs, is not this perfect system you imagine in the abstract.

Actually, I would go much further than that: the theory of evolution predicts that once reason is established, there will arise meme-mind symbionts that *deliberately* devise plausible-sounding proofs of objective falsehoods, rather like Batesian mimicry. It is not just that logic falls short of perfection when practiced by fallible humans. Once reason is established as an effective means of enhancing reproductive fitness, there is an incentive -- particularly among those who benefit less from the fruits of reason (like those on lower rungs of the economic ladder) -- to take *any* idea that enhances *their* reproductive fitness and present it as if it were the product of reason. So there are "proofs" that disprove "truths" not because humans are imperfect, but rather because we are actually very good as donning the mantle of reason without adhering to its substance when (not if) it benefits us to do so.

Dan said...

Thank you both for the further explanation. Don, I really enjoyed that quote/link about Asimov thoughts on the different degrees of wrongness.

> You're fooling yourself if you think that it is always trivial to recognize the error in these false (dis)proofs.

I don't think that it's always trivial to recognize truth from untruth. I just take some comfort from the fact that on some level only the true can really be proved. Almost how a religious person might take comfort in the notion that ultimately good triumphs over evil. One might offer examples of terrible evil destroying good throughout history to sway that man. But I think that he would cling to the idea that evil can't win out forever.

In the same way I recognize that people have been and continue to be wrong, but just as Asimov explained in the article you linked, about many things we're less wrong today than we have been in the past. That progress is exactly what I'm getting at.

> So there are "proofs" that disprove "truths" not because humans are imperfect, but rather because we are actually very good as donning the mantle of reason without adhering to its substance when (not if) it benefits us to do so.

It's a scary thought to think that I believe in something that is proved wrong. I have been in situations where I wanted to believe something despite the proof. I remember a time in set theory class when I proposed something and the teacher told me I was wrong, and then proved it. I was frustrated, I wanted to disagree with him. But I knew that I couldn't, because I understood that it was a proof. I have encountered people who tried to tell me that things weren't true which I had proofs for. I have shown them the proof and asked what the flaw in the proof is. They will say something like, "I don't believe in the number zero" or something like that. That's when I know that they don't have a real reason and I'm reassured that I'm not making a mistake with the proof. For me that is enough, as long as I can feel like what I'm saying wouldn't be disproved in a peer-reviewed, scientific journal, I'm okay.

A spiritual person might have the same feelings about their beliefs, but for them that comes from faith. In my case the feeling comes from conviction to acquiesce in the face of rationality. I think this is the crux of what makes science more compelling than religion for those to whom it is. Do you think this is an illusion?

P.S. I'm aware that I chose math examples which are probably the tidiest and simplest for proofs whereas we're talking more about proofs in general. I chose those examples because they're real and they happened to me, but I think that the overall concept still works with other things such as evolution.

Ron said...

> Almost how a religious person might take comfort in the notion that ultimately good triumphs over evil.

That is an excellent analogy.

> A spiritual person might have the same feelings about their beliefs, but for them that comes from faith. In my case the feeling comes from conviction to acquiesce in the face of rationality.

And where does that conviction come from?

> I think this is the crux of what makes science more compelling than religion for those to whom it is. Do you think this is an illusion?

No (except insofar as all of classical "reality" is an illusion). But the key phrase there is "for those to whom it is." The point here is that there are those for whom science is not compelling. Which (I claim) is exactly what science would lead one to expect. So then what?