13 March 2020

Wait But Why?--Why are we so polarized and why are those other people so stupid and evil?

I have been following this blog for a while. It mostly has pretty interesting, fun, light, but thoughtful content. For example here is one called "Eleven Awkward Things About Email."  Here's one on Procrastination and one on beating procrastination.

Tim Urban, the author, even did a TED Talk on procrastination.

In 2019, he started a series called "The Story of Us"

It's one of those series that you just know is right--and maybe really important.

The entire series covers the spectrum of how and why we think, act, and argue. I have put some incomplete summaries of the posts below. But read them for yourself. It changed the way I think about discourse and you may find it useful as well.

Chapter 0: Introduction - The US is looking pretty bad these days. The divide between the two major parties is bitter and troubling. There's something wrong, but it's hard to know exactly what. Even writing about these topics can be contentious and troubling. As you read through the series, try to remain humble and keep your mind open. I know that the series has opened my mind to a new way of thinking about what I know and how I think I know it. Off we go.

Section 1: The Power Games
Chapter 1: The Great Battle of Fire and Light - Humans are animals. All animals have survival genes that run on automatic. It's what Kahneman calls System 1. That thinking system is wired for survival of the genes. A few million years ago, humans developed a superpower--the ability to reason. This is Kahneman's System 2. The two systems are in constant conflict in your mind. When System 2 is in charge, logic and reason prevail. When it's system 1, instinct takes over. Primitive vs Higher Mind; Fire vs. Light. That is the conflict in us all.

Chapter 2: A Game of Giants - The Emergence of Life started with cells banding together. Those cells joined other cells, which formed organs, systems of organs, and ultimately animals emerged. Those animals, in turn, formed tribes. Those tribes in the ancient world were necessary to survival. They could combine to bring out the best or the worst of humanity, depending on the circumstances. We can turn from kumbaya to dog eat dog at the flick of a switch.

Chapter 3: A Story of Stories - Tribes have similar tendencies as humans. It is a level up from individual humans. We slide up and down the scale from individuals to part of a tribe to part of a large society easily depending on circumstances. Ultimately a person's behavior is a function of Motivation (Morals, Primal Urges, Values) and their environment, which is really their perception of reality. Enter the STORY. Stories are the narratives that tie together Motivation and Environment. Stories that become "viral" tie tribes together. The most lasting and powerful stories have a set of attributes in common. They create an indoctrination-intimidation feedback loop that makes the story and behaviors driven by that story self-perpetuating. This brings us further up the emergence tower from thousands to millions and billions. But the tribal behaviors persist, just at a higher level. The problem here is that the HIGHER MIND takes a backseat in this. The feedback loop is driven more by the power games of the primitive mind. Is there some way to raise the game away from the primitive and into the light?

Section 2: The Value Games
Chapter 4: The Enlightenment Kids - The US Declaration of Independence and Constitution were two things: a Power Game to prevent taxation without representation and a framework establishing an intellectual framework for our system of governance. This was driven by the enlightenment in Europe, which created a new story that "talked about ideas like human rights and equality and tolerance and freedom. According to this new story, humans had made incredible advancements in knowledge, wisdom, and technology—but they were still doing government like it was 7,000 BC." A unique characteristic of the constitution is that instead of being created to lead to an end state, it laid out rules about the means of governance, with only very general principles about the ends. It creates a feedback loop between the rules, the government, and the citizens.

In the power games, you start with complete individual freedom, then you get or keep what you can through power or force. The US turned that on its head and said you can swing your arms unless you hit someone else's nose. This established a line between freedom and safety. However, oftentimes, rights were in conflict, so we needed a concept of fairness--both of process and, to some extent,  outcome. Why only to some extent? Well, most in the US believe in some form of a meritocracy where people earn what they deserve and work for--we don't want communism with a forced complete redistribution by a distributed government, nor do we want a dictator to take from us. Communism removes incentives and markets; dictatorship removes fairness and markets. Ultimately, this creates a fairly narrow window in which our government exists. It must have the right amount of fairness while still respecting the boundaries of individual rights and freedoms.

This fairness framework that has been in place for over 200 years in the US has lifted the lot of the average person, prevented, the worst outcomes for most and by converting the push of power games into the pull of markets, and unleashed colossal innovation.

Chapter 5: The Mute Button - Is about censorship. We all have our innermost thoughts and feelings as well as what we express to the outside world. In a world with ACTUAL free speech with no consequences, the outside and inside would match. In a power games world, there is someone with power and authority preventing that speech from happening. There will always be societal norms and gaps between what a person thinks and shows. It's when the external speech is altered BECAUSE of power and control, the very thoughts of people begin to change to reflect that control. "By silencing certain ideas, the mute button prevents the giant from having the wrong thoughts. And when you can control a giant’s thoughts, you can control the giant’s actions." All of this is why the first amendment of the US Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech." This freedom ends when that speech does harm to others, AND, it does not restrict YOUR control over what others to say in your domain. That is still your business.

Chapter 6: The American Brain - The marketplace of Ideas or MPI is the bell curve that represents the distribution of thought around a given topic at any time.

"If you live in a democracy, and you’re not zoomed out far enough, you might look at the politicians running your government and mistake them for your leaders. In the short term, sure, they jostle with each other over the country’s policies and steer the country on the international stage. But with a step back, the real long-term leader of a democracy is the giant communal brain of the citizen body."

"Mute buttons in any form should raise an alarm in all of our heads, though they sometimes seem to go unnoticed. When all you’ve ever known is freedom, it can be easy to forget just how precious it is."

"With a mysterious, foggy future ahead, free speech would give the new nation a way to figure things out as it went: a flashlight to help see the truth, a compass that would help point it towards wisdom, and a mirror that would help an orphan child raise itself."

Part 3: Thinking: in 3D
Chapter 7: The Thinking Ladder - Why do we believe what we believe? There's what you believe, but there's also Why we believe. In many ways the why is more important. There is a range of whys, driven by the different systems of the mind. There is careful, well-reasoned thoughts driven by logic, values, and facts. Your logic, value, and facts may lead you to communism or fascism. Most people will fall in between into a fairly narrow band. What is important for conversation is that you applied logic, values, and facts (LVF), and for discussion that you are transparent about those. This is thinking like a scientist: gather info, form hypothesis, test hypothesis. Lather, Rinse, repeat. In the scientist zone, you strive to be on the line, with conviction appropriate to your knowledge.

The next three rungs on the ladder are the sports fan, lawyer, and zealot. Each rung successively applies less LVF, and takes a position based more and more on the primitive mind. (BTW, no offense to lawyers. When they represent a client, it is literally their job to cherry-pick and represent their client's interests. There is a lot of content on this page, and the infographic at the end to sum it up is great.

Chapter 8: Idea Labs and Echo Chambers - There is a 3rd dimension to the thinking ladder. That is the "Emergence Tower." So now we have the style of thinking (Why), What we think, and now whether it is thinking as part of a tribe, as an individual, or with more of a universal frame.

This third dimension brings in the concept of culture and cultural incentives. Start with an Idea Lab. Idea Labs are groups of people that provide incentives for members of the "lab" to think like scientists. They like independent thought, intellectual diversity, and try to stay close to the humility line described above--neither over- nor under-confident. People in idea labs may have different views of the world, but they are united by their shared manner of reaching their conclusions. They're all ultimately, "on the same truth-seeking team." Because of free speech, the US has historically been a giant idea lab. This is arguably the source of at least some of the success of the nation.

Echo chambers, on the other hand, are dark places. If you do not toe the line of what is in the echo chamber you become an outcast, an enemy, one of "them." "Virtue signaling" is an important value. Echo chambers make its members arrogant, more primitive, and intellectually helpless, and it bullies its members into submission.

"The multi-colored brain network in an Idea Lab is a marketplace of ideas that functions as a super-brain—a giant, superintelligent thinking machine. But the Echo Chamber’s network isn’t a giant brain at all. It’s a solid-colored agreement network—a bloc of hijacked brains, tightly glued together by shared beliefs in order to generate brute strength in numbers." Idea lab members have different ideas, they are united by their thought process; echo-chamber members are divided by their ideas, but without a significant thought process behind it.

[e4e take: One thing that I see happening is the pure exhaustion of Trump's lies, breaking of convention, and probably breaking the law--all in the open--has simply exhausted the higher minds of many people. When your higher mind is exhausted you default to the lower effort lizard brain. I'm not trying to say Trump is guilty of crimes, and at the same time, his constant tweeting and defiance of convention have clearly been extraordinary.]

Part 4: Politics, in 3D
Chapter 9: Political Disney World - Revisiting the psych spectrum: thinking like a scientist vs thinking like a zealot and everything in between. On the political side though there are two aspects to think about: the thinking side and the motivational or values side.

The thinking side is similar to the psych spectrum. It's the difference between seeking truth vs seeking confirmation of your beliefs. The political activism side is fundamentally different. It relates to the goals of politics. On the high-minded side is seeking a "more perfect union." On the primitive side is political triumph. Tim's thinking though is that there is a high correlation between the two ladders, so they can be collapsed into one.

He says that politics is, by its nature, a bottom-heavy topic. Like religion, it starts with belief, then people look for confirmation of those beliefs. There are people on the higher rungs, but the ratio is bad and much more heavily weighted to the lower ones.

Perhaps the most important concept in this series so far is to separate how we think from what we think. The political spectrum is a good way to do this.

Let's consider global warming beliefs. In terms of what you believe and how a person might get there.

  1. Anthropogenic global warming is a scientifically proven fact, it is catastrophic and will spell the extinction of humans unless we immediately cease and desist all emissions of carbon that are unnecessary including cow farts.
    1. High Rung Thinking - There is a tremendous amount of peer-reviewed science that has studied this. Even many skeptical scientists have come to this side after examining the data. There are computer models, which while imperfect, point to possible devastating climate paths. Given what is at stake, we should do everything possible to mitigate the worst effects of CO2 emissions.
    2. Low Rung Thinking - 97%! The deniers are trying to kill us. It's all about profits for oil companies! Vote blue to save the planet. AOC and Greta say it's right. And by the way, no to nuclear either.
  2. The planet is not actually warming. There is no need to take any measures at all, much less the restrictive ones being proposed by so many.  
    1. High Rung Thinking - The published temperature data say it is, but that is after corrections much larger than the actual effect being measured. Burning fossil fuels has had numerous very positive impacts on the planet and on human beings. If the trace element in our atmosphere of CO2 is actually damaging, it has to be measured against benefits including increased agricultural productivity. 
    2. Low Rung Thinking - Global warming is a total hoax, pushed by the Chinese. Not only is CO2 good for the environment, we should be pushing to generate more, because plant food. The president says so.
These are my caricatures of the arguments and meant as examples, not real arguments. They're meant to illustrate how people can have either very different conclusions, but arrived at through similar thought processes or similar conclusions arrived at through different thought processes.

This post has so much more content than I will attempt to summarize, including how the removal of free speech and threats against people with dissenting opinions can alter or remove high-level discourse and some of the biases and tactics that occur in the discourse, so please go to the blog and check it out. I'll leave you with one more graphic that illustrates how idea-lab vs echo chamber culture influences our perception of other people.

Oh and one more thing. The tile of this one, "Political Disney World," refers to how in Disney movies and tales, the good guy/girl is all sweetness. light, and sunshine, while the bad guy/girl is evil and dark. It's about the extreme polarization and characterization of people who do not share the same beliefs.

And there's so much more. Just read it. There are lots of pictures!

Part 5: A Dangerous Trend
Chapter 10: A Sick Giant - The first nine chapters were about creating a lens through which to view arguments and peoples' motivations. Now we are getting to the meat. Seeing in 2D is about the internal tug of war between our thinking and logical side and the primitive lizard brain. The third dimension comes in when we extrapolate that from a single person to the different levels of society. The same tug of war inside each of us scales up to society levels.

This tug of war at a societal level goes through cycles, and right now, the US and the rest of the world is in a down cycle. Polarization is rampant, but not because of principle, but rather the left and right lizard brains are at war.

There are a couple likely drivers: 1. Geographic bubbles or echo chambers form due to the mobility of people today, and 2. Information bubbles driven by biased and dishonest media. Not just dishonest about the things they say, but dishonest about their position and objectivity. They have new tools and outlets that have never existed, and this further drives wedges.

It turns out though that people in this nation are fairly well aligned on values--what should be. We're much less well-aligned on what IS--our current state. This is driven by the selection bias of what news is shown (no news is good news or good news is not news). The news sources then feed what the author calls political bigotry. It is basically a disgust response to THEM. The others, who used to be wrong, stupid people are now evil, disgusting monsters.

These trends merge into four things that concern Tim greatly.
1. We're losing or ability to gain knowledge
2. We're losing our ability to think together.
3. We're losing our ability to cooperate
4. We're doing that thing that people do before really, really awful things happen.

Given all that, it appears that we are devolving further into the Power Games, and away from the Value Games.

At the risk of engaging in bothsidesism, he recognizes that the bad behavior becomes a vicious circle. He has spent the last three years trying to figure out what it will take to trigger the national immune system and raise the level of discourse, to pull the nation out of the spiral.

He sees hope in the great center, where views and values are actually pretty similar, but polarization is high because of the level and nature of the discourse.

"When the Value Games are working properly, people holding the most extreme views are relegated to the fringes—retaining enough of a voice to effect change when they’re right about something but unable to do too much damage when, more often, they’re wrong. But in the Power Games, it’s often the case that small groups of more extreme people end up with outsized power over others.

"Maybe instead of focusing on how politically active the most extreme people are, we should be asking ourselves why those who hold “more complex views” have become so inactive."

That will be the topic of Chapter 11.

Chapter 11:

Chapter 12: