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Tuesday, August 22, 2023


When you make the same "mistake" more than once, that's a Decision.
As alluded to in prior posts, Lee McIntrye's new book is out.
Chapter 1 Truth Killers

The storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, was an American tragedy. It was also completely predictable. The “patriots” in face paint—who carried sharpened flagpoles, bats, and zip ties into the Senate chamber—were the inevitable result of seventy years of lies about tobacco, evolution, global warming, and vaccines. After the “truth killers” provided a blueprint for how to deny scientific facts that clashed with their financial or ideological interests, it was a small step for unscrupulous politicians to figure out how to use this strategy to lie about anything they wanted, such as the baseless claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that the January 6 insurrectionists were actually “peaceful protestors” or Antifa in disguise.

Welcome to the world of reality denial, where truth is subordinate to ideology, feelings have more weight than evidence, and democracy hangs in the balance. Throughout history, autocratic leaders and their wannabes have understood that the quickest way to control a population is to control their information sources. But in a society that still has a free press, disinformation is the new censorship. Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Harrison Ford has finally found the Holy Grail but can’t tell which one it is because it’s surrounded by a hundred fakes? That’s the point of disinformation. If you can’t hide or destroy the truth, surround it with bullshit. You can always kill it later…

McIntyre, Lee. On Disinformation (pp. 1-3). MIT Press. Kindle Edition.
The topic scarcely be more timely, exigently so. It's a quick read. Well worth your time.
I'll cut straight to the chase. From the closing chapter:
CHAPTER 6: How to win the war on truth

What might ordinary citizens do to fight back?

First, confront the liars. This a lesson learned from how to effectively combat science deniers. If you just let the liar have the microphone, things will only get worse and new recruits will come aboard…

Second, heed history. Autocrats understand the danger of truth tellers. This is why they make such enormous efforts to shut down dissenters, even when they are few in number and would seem to represent a small threat…

A third step that ordinary citizens might take to fight back against reality denial is to resist polarization. Even if you are on the virtuous side of facts and truth, fragmentation is dangerous…

Fourth, as hard as it is, recognize that in some sense deniers are victims. They have been duped. They are the zombie foot soldiers of the creators of disinformation, who are profiting by their ignorance, while the believer gets nothing…

Fifth, tune out the bullshit. As we’ve seen, even credible media outlets have a preferred narrative of conflict, failure, and chaos. And this can make you feel powerless. Don’t give in to the idea that there is nothing you can do. Even better, insist that your favorite media outlets stop feeding the “both sides” beast that got us here…

Sixth, don’t fall for the sop that this can all be solved by “better education” or “critical thinking.” That is important, but it takes a while. And it is hard to get someone to think clearly when they are already in the grips of a conspiracy theory. Yes, we need to teach better critical thinking skills to our children, but we can’t wait for them to grow up to save us…

Seventh, stop looking for facile solutions to the problem of disinformation. If this were easy, we would have solved it by now. People around us—especially those who worry about censorship and free speech—love to say that the solution to bad information is good information. But that is not true. Good information is a virtue, but it is not sufficient. We must find a way to stop bad information from being amplified…

Eighth, engage in political activism to try to get Congress to regulate social media. In particular, draw policy makers’ attention to the importance of transparency in the algorithms that are used by social media companies to decide what news we will see in our news feeds. It doesn’t take that many letters or phone calls from dissatisfied constituents to change a politician’s mind…

Ninth, take solace in the fact that there are many others out there who are also engaged in this battle. You are not alone. There are millions of people who would like to defend truth and democracy but don’t know what to do. Reach out to them...

Tenth, continue to learn more about the problem of reality denial and its consequences for democracy…
[ibid, pp. 119-126]
I've riffed episodically (and, well, critically) on "critical thinking" before. e.g., see my post "Mental Immunity."
"Protect Democracy?" Time draws short, my friends.
 441 days until the U.S. 2024 national elections.

"The world of reality denial, where truth is subordinate to ideology, feelings have more weight than evidence, and democracy hangs in the balance."
Ahhh... "Evidence."
To be sure, these latter titles are focused "denial" specifically. Disinformation is a significant ethical level down, w/ cultural "Gresham's Dynamic" sociopolitical inferences. The "tribal" implications are pretty obvious:
…Kahan concludes, the goals of dissonance reduction and maintenance of group standing can work together in favor of denial. Of course, as Sperber points out, this tendency fuels groupthink: “From an epistemological point of view, the fact that an idea is widely shared is not a good reason to accept it unless these people have come to hold it independently of one another.” Consensus can result from independent thinkers coming to the same conclusion, or it can result from cultural forces; trusting in the latter sort of consensus is good for getting along, but not so good from the standpoint of actually getting things right.

Further, social groups that share ideological common ground can be expected to show greater cooperation and resilience in the face of external threats. When the group as a whole is more successful, traits shared by group members may be more successfully preserved over the long run. To the extent that group-selection pressures have a role to play in evolutionary adaptation, the cognitive flexibility necessary to consistent ideological conformity could also play a role here.

Nor is it necessarily a bad idea, from an evolutionary standpoint, to be in the habit of placing more trust in members of the group with which you identify: Someone with whom you share cultural values or background is more likely to have your best interests at heart…

Bardon, Adrian. The Truth About Denial (p. 41). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
One might even like to go full-bore anthropologically/ontogenically "Evo-Devo" here.

Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny

In Search of Human Uniqueness

In his 1871 book The Descent of Man Charles Darwin proposed, in effect, that humans were just another branch on the evolutionary tree. Victorian Englanders, many with significant scientific training, were incredulous. Humans’ closest living relatives, the great apes, still lived in forests and jungles “red in tooth and claw,” but humans lived in a world of telescopes and steam engines, symphony orchestras and the British Parliament, and morning prayer followed by afternoon tea. It was a puzzle, to say the least, how just another branch on the evolutionary tree could live a life so utterly different from that of other animals.

Today this puzzle is essentially solved. At some point in human history a new evolutionary process arose. A telltale sign of this new process is that not all humans live amid telescopes, symphony orchestras, and the British Parliament but instead live among their own distinctive artifacts, symbols, and institutions. And because children, whatever their genetics, adopt the particular artifacts, symbols, and institutions into which they are born, it is clear that this societal variation cannot be coming from the genes but rather is socially created. The full puzzle is thus that humans are not only a species of unprecedented cognitive and social achievements but also, at the same time, one that displays a novel kind of socially created, group-level diversity.

The solution to the puzzle—the new evolutionary process—is of course human culture. But the traditional notion of culture as something apart from biology and evolution will not do. Human culture is the form of social organization that arose in the human lineage in response to specific adaptive challenges. Its most distinctive characteristic is its high degree (and new forms) of cooperation. Synchronically, the members of a cultural group coordinate with one another in the context of self-created cooperative structures such as conventions (including linguistic conventions), norms, and institutions, and they relate to one another based on cooperative motives such as trust, commitment, and fairness. Call this the coordinative dimension of culture. Diachronically, the members of a cultural group pass along skills and knowledge to succeeding generations via cooperative processes of cultural learning, such as active instruction and conformist learning, resulting in a kind of “ratchet effect” in which cultural practices and products (including conventions, norms, and institutions) evolve, perhaps “improve,” over historical time. Call this the transmitive dimension of culture. The outcome is that virtually all of humans’ most remarkable achievements—from steam engines to higher mathematics—are based on the unique ways in which individuals are able to coordinate with one another cooperatively, both in the moment and over cultural-historical time.

But this explanation of human uniqueness in terms of cultural processes creates another puzzle, and this one is not yet solved. In this case the focus is not on the level of the species and its achievements, but rather on the level of the individual and its psychology: how do human individuals come to the species-unique cognitive and social abilities necessary for participating in cultural coordination and transmission? To answer this question the obvious first step is to establish exactly how human psychology differs from that of other primates—precisely how humans as individuals are unique. The difficulty is that over the past few decades empirical research has established that humans’ nearest living relatives, the great apes, possess cognitive and social skills highly similar to those of humans, including many that are seemingly relevant to cultural processes. For example, there is recent research demonstrating that at least some great apes (1) make and use tools, (2) communicate intentionally (or even “linguistically”), (3) have a kind of “theory of mind,” (4) acquire some behaviors via social learning (leading to “culture”), (5) hunt together in groups, (6) have “friends” with whom they preferentially groom and form alliances, (7) actively help others, and (8) evaluate and reciprocate one another’s social actions.

But do apes do these things in the same way as humans? To make this determination in particular cases we must look beneath the sweeping claims that both apes and humans “have x” or “do y,” even though such claims may be true on a general level. To penetrate beneath such generalities, we need to make more fine-grained comparisons by performing comparative experiments in which humans and great apes (especially chimpanzees and bonobos, as humans’ nearest living relatives) are observed in as-similar-as-possible circumstances. Such controlled experimental comparisons make it possible to detect subtle differences of behavior and, ideally, the cognitive and motivational processes underlying them. In this way we seek to identify the differences on the individual psychological level that ultimately lead to humans’ unique forms of cultural coordination and transmission (and so to telescopes and parliaments).

Given a description of the key differences between humans and their nearest great ape relatives, the next task is to explain those differences. In an evolutionary framework, the axiomatic explanation is, of course, natural selection: the human individuals alive today have been naturally selected to meet certain species-unique ecological or socioecological challenges. For example, one proposal is that humans evolved many of their unique cognitive and social capacities in response to ecological challenges that first forced them to collaborate with one another in acquiring food, and then later prompted them to form larger cultural groups to defend their resources from other groups (Tomasello 2014, 2016). Under these conditions, individuals who could best cooperate with others—individuals who were both capable and motivated to put their heads together with others to collaborate or form a culture—were at an adaptive advantage and so proliferated.

But natural selection creates nothing. Natural selection is only a sieve that sorts, after the fact, viable from nonviable organisms. Evolutionary novelties originate not from natural selection but rather from the other main dimension of the evolutionary process: inherited variation. Classically, inherited variation in evolution emanates from genetic mutation or recombination, which produce, via ontogenetic processes, novel traits. But recent advances in evolutionary developmental biology (so-called Evo-Devo) suggest that the constructive role of these ontogenetic processes has not been fully recognized. Not only do new traits always come into existence via ontogenetic processes—which direct and constrain genetic expression—but by far the most frequent source of new traits is changes in the timing and manner in which already existing genes are expressed and transact with the environment.

Thus, even relatively modest changes in the way that regulatory genes orchestrate ontogenetic timing and plasticity can have enormous and cascading phenotypic effects—not encoded directly in the genes—as developing systems interact with one another and with the environment in unexpected ways. The implication is that if we wish to explain how uniquely human psychology is created, we must focus our attention on ontogeny, and especially on how great ape ontogeny in general has been transformed into human ontogeny in particular.

And that is my goal here. I wish to describe and explain the ontogeny of uniquely human psychology, using as a starting point great ape ontogeny. Great apes engage in basic processes of perception, memory, and categorization, as well as more complex processes of intentional communication, prosocial behavior, and social learning. From this starting point, we may then attempt to identify the unique aspects of human psychology as they emerge ontogenetically over the first years of life. A natural end point for this investigation is children of six to seven years of age. In the eyes of many cultural institutions and traditions, across many centuries and societies, children’s sixth or seventh birthday heralds their entry into the “age of reason.” In British common law, this is the first age at which a child may commit a crime. In the Catholic Church, this is the age at which a child may first take communion. In cultures requiring formal education, this is the age at which a child is ready for serious instruction in literacy and numeracy. And in traditional societies, this is the age at which a child is first given important independent tasks such as tending a flock, gathering firewood, or delivering a message (Rogoff et al. 1975). Overall, children of this age have become, from a cognitive point of view, mostly reasonable—beings with whom one may reason, and expect a reasonable response in return—and they have become, from a social point of view, mostly responsible—beings whom one may hold accountable, and expect to hold themselves accountable, for their beliefs and actions. The result is nascent “persons,” who have taken a giant first step toward internalizing the culture’s norms of rationality and morality, making them for the first time capable of and indeed responsible for normatively self-regulating their own beliefs and actions.

Our working hypothesis to explain the ontogeny of uniquely human psychology is Vygotskian: uniquely human forms of cognition and sociality emerge in human ontogeny through, and only through, species-unique forms of sociocultural activity. But the theory we develop updates and modifies Vygotsky—it is Neo-Vygotskian—in placing human sociocultural activity within the framework of modern evolutionary theory. This means that we begin by seeking to identify the ways in which humans are biologically prepared for engaging in their unique forms of sociocultural activity; indeed, we may argue that it is precisely this biological preparation—in the form of maturationally expressed capacities—that makes uniquely human sociocultural activities and experiences possible in the first place. This does not contradict Vygotsky’s argument for the key role of sociocultural context in human psychological development. Modern evolutionary theory emphasizes that organisms inherit their environments as much as they inherit their genes: a fish inherits not only fins but also water. Human children inherit a sociocultural context replete with cultural artifacts, symbols, and institutions, and their unique maturational capacities would be inert without a sociocultural context within which to develop (Richerson and Boyd 2005). Normal human ontogeny thus requires both the maturation of species-unique cognitive and social capacities and also individual experience in such things as collaborative and communicative interactions with others, structured by cultural artifacts such as linguistic conventions and social norms…

Tomasello, Michael (2019-01-06T22:58:59.000). Becoming Human. Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Yeah, I know. I have no life. Michael Tomasello rocks. I have other of his works. Bring a box of Snicker's.

Mr. No Life: It gets worse. From anthropology let's fast-forward to contemporary Scripts People Live.

Elevator speech: "Many/(most?) of us live lives in which we are at once the Stars and Victims in our own neural award-winning melodramas." We gotta have "our Stories." Seems to me such would likely up the ante for susceptibility to the types of irrationalities under discussion here.

Yeah. I have no life.
(BTW: My wife and I came together in 1974. This was the first book we read together.)
Another illustrative title I neglected to mention.
...In 2018, the Policy Planning Staff, a think tank within the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent a dire warning about information manipulation that exploits our cognitive loopholes, especially confirmation bias, as a major threat to democracy worldwide.48 Just slightly over two years later, the warning became real in the United States. On January 6, 2021, thousands of violent rioters stormed the Capitol Building and attacked Congress, while chanting “Hang Mike Pence!” The rioters vandalized the building and sent members of Congress into hiding to save their lives. In more than two centuries, American democracy had never been so seriously challenged.49 And all of it started on the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Who had expected that disinformation could suddenly become a major challenge to the survival of American democracy? Fighting disinformation, consequently, has become a new and urgent duty for citizens…

Sun, Lixing. The Liars of Nature and the Nature of Liars (p. 210). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
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