The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums - Kevin Simler - Robin Hanson - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue that our own self-interest drives a huge amount of our behavior. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a huge shock, but if you truly look at how deeply our self-interest is tied to everything we do, you start to see that we like to pretend that we don’t act purely out of our own self-interest. Instead, we lie to ourselves and others and create high minded reasons for our beliefs, behaviors, and actions. But our self-interest is never far behind. It is always there as the elephant in the room (or brain) influencing all that we do even if we constantly try to ignore it.
This is likely what happens when people visit psychics and mediums with the hopes of learning about their future or reconnecting with the spirit of a lost one. Mary Roach describes what is going on with psychics, mediums, and their clients in her book Spook, and I think her explanation is a strong argument for the ideas presented by Hanson and Simler in The Elephant in the Brain. She writes:
“It seems to me that in many cases psychics and mediums prosper not because they’re intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical. The people who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one.”
Both psychics/mediums and their subjects are motivated by self-interests that they don’t want to fully own up to. They both deceive themselves in order to appear to genuinely believe the experience. If you can fool yourself then it becomes much easier to fool others, and that requires that you ignore the elephant (your self-interest) in your brain.
Clients want to believe they are really interacting with the spirit of a lost one and not being fooled or defrauded. Critical thinking and deliberately acknowledging that they are susceptible to being fooled are ignored and forgotten. Instead, the individual’s self-interest acts behind the scenes as they help create the reality they want to inhabit with the help of the psychic or medium.
The psychics and mediums also don’t want to be viewed as fraudsters and quacks. They hide the fact that they have economic and social motivations to appear to have special powers and signal their authenticity. If a client is uncritical, it helps the entire process and allows both parties to ignore their self-interest acting below the surface. Ultimately, as Roach argues, the process is dependent on both practitioners who are willing to believe their subjects are having authentic experiences and on subjects to then believe their psychics and mediums are genuinely communicating with the dead. Without either, and without the self-deception for both, the whole process would fall apart.
Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

In the book Spook, Mary Roach writes, “People don’t seem to approach life with the same terrified, risk-aversive tenacity that we do. I’m beginning to understand why, religious doctrine aside, the concept of reincarnation might be so popular here. Rural India seems like a place where life is taken away too easily – accidents, childhood diseases, poverty, murder. If you’ll be back for another go, why get too worked up about the leaving?” Roach is joking of course, but this quote comes at the end of a lengthy description of dangers and risks that she experienced in India that we would find appalling in the United States. Her travels to India brought her face to face with cyclists moving through heavy traffic and breathing diesel smog. She was afraid of large trucks overflowing with potatoes and cauliflower that threatened to spill over onto the vehicle she was riding in. And she was also afraid for the lives of more than one woman riding precariously on the back of a fast moving Vespa.
While the quote is funny, it does get at some interesting ways of thinking about life, death, and how we go about our days. I’m not sure how much of our differences in risk tolerance in the United States versus India comes down to beliefs in reincarnation, but I can see how ideas of reincarnation would be comforting in a dangerous society. I don’t know if reincarnation would be enough to create a moral hazard scenario where people were intentionally negligent about safety because they expected to come back in another life, but I’m sure there is some impact that could be studied.
The quote from Roach also seems to suggest that Americans value our lives differently than individuals in India. She highlights how risk averse Americans tend to be, referring to how much we go out of our way to ensure everything we interact with is safe, and how we try to limit risk in everything from roller coasters to strollers. I think that what is likely going on is a difference in culture that stretches back years and is fraught with technological limitations and differences in population density. I am currently listening to an audiobook with an author who interviewed friends from her childhood in rural Ohio in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her dad was a doctor, and she notes how many individuals, including children, died in accidents involving farming equipment. Today we have adopted technology within everything we do, allowing us to make the world safer. Risk stands out more than in the 1960’s and 70’s when we didn’t have the technology to make everything as safe as we can now. Perhaps the difference that Roach noted, that she jokingly attributed to belief in reincarnation, is simply due to limitations in technology and a need to earn money.
More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

“In my experience,” writes Mary Roach in Spook, “the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.”
This quote from Mary Roach is something I have experienced in my own life over and over. I have met many people with very strong views about subjects, and they very often oversimplify an issue and reduce arguments against their position to a straw man. Rather than carefully considering whether their opinions and perspectives are valid, they dismiss arguments against their favored position without real thought. And to be fair, this is something I have even caught myself doing.
I generally seem to be one of those people who can talk about challenging subjects with just about anyone. I think the reason why I am able to talk to people about difficult topics is because I always try to understand how reach the perspective they hold. I also try hard to understand why I hold my own opinions, and I try not to reduce either my own or another person’s opinion to a simple right or wrong morality judgment. I think we come to our opinions through many convoluted paths, and straw-manning an argument does an injustice to the opinions and views of others.
At the same time, I have noticed that those who hold the most oversimplified beliefs do so in a dogmatic manner, as Roach suggested. They may be able to consider facts and go through deeper considerations, but they ultimately fall back on simple dogma, rather than live with the complex cognitive dissonance required to accept that you believe one thing in general, but cannot always rely on that one thing to explain the particulars. Personally, I have found that I can have conversations with these people, but that I feel frustrated when they then turn around and post things on social media that are reductive and ignore the complex perspectives we previously talked through.
Like Roach, I find that those with more detailed and nuanced views, built out of an accumulation of facts, generally are less emotionally invested in a given topic. Perhaps it is a lack of passion for a topic which allowed them to look at facts in such detail, rather than adopting a favored view and immediately dismissing anything that doesn’t align with that view.
Ultimately, I think much of this behavior can be understood by reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain. We are all smart and capable of self-deception in order to more strongly believe the thing we want to believe. Over simplified dogmas simply help us do that better. I think we are often signaling our loyalty to a group or signaling some characteristic that we think is important when we make reductive and dogmatic statements. We recognize what identity we wish to hold and what is in our self-interest, and we act our part, adopt the right beliefs, and signal to others that we are part of the right in-group. In this way, the dogma is a feature and not a bug.
Science and Facts

Science and Facts

Science helps us understand the world and answer questions about how and why things are the way they are. But this doesn’t mean science always gives us the most accurate answers possible. Quite often science seems to suggest an answer, sometimes the answer we get doesn’t really answer the question we wanted to ask, and sometimes there is just too much noise to gain any real understanding. The inability to perfectly answer every question, especially when we present science as providing clear facts when teaching science to young children, is a point of the confusion and dismissal among those who don’t want to believe the answers that science gives us.
In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach writes, “Of course, science doesn’t dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it. Science has the answer to every question that can be asked. However, science reserves the right to change that answer should additional data become available.” The science of the afterlife (really the science of life, living, death, and dying), Roach explains, has been a science of revision. What we believe, how we conduct experiments, and how we interpret scientific results has shifted as our technology and scientific methods have progressed. The science of life and death has given us many different answers over the years as our own biases have shifted and as our data and computer processing has evolved.
The reality is that all of our scientific fields of study are incomplete. There are questions we still don’t have great answers to, and as we seek those answers, we have to reconsider older answers and beliefs. We have to study contradictions and try to understand what might be wrong with the way we have interpreted the world. What we bring to science impacts what we find, and that means that sometimes we don’t find truths, but conveniently packaged answers that reinforce what we always wanted to be true. Overtime, however, the people doing the science change, the background knowledge brought to science changes, and the way we understand the answers from science changes. It can be frustrating to those of us on the outside who want clear answers and don’t want to be abused by people who wish to deliberately mislead based on incomplete scientific knowledge. But overtime science revises itself to become more accurate and to better describe the world around us.
Flown By Technology - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Flown By Technology

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach wrote the following about the Mercury Capsules that took America’s first astronauts to space, “the astronaut doesn’t fly the capsule; the capsule flies the astronaut.” Roach explained that this was evident from two test flights that took chimps to space and returned them to Earth. If a monkey could fly to space, then we could question whether the astronauts were really necessary, a slight tarnish on the otherwise impressive feat of being the first Americans in space. The question raised during the Mercury Capsules is still with us, and as technology in all areas of life automates, it is more common than ever. Do we need to drive our cars, or can our cars drive us? Do we need to go grocery shopping, or can the fridge order food for us? Do we need to work, or can machines work for us?
In our lives we all like control. We may not be piloting space ships, but still like to feel as though we are in control of the machines and destinies of our lives. We don’t generally like to believe our destiny is a pre-set course, and we don’t want to feel as though our machines are in control of us. Some of us may be fully ready for the world of self-driving cars, autonomous kitchen gadgets, and artificial intelligences that can end the world of work as we know it, but for many of us, each step toward automation is terrifying. Many of us fear what we lose, what control goes away, when we hand over more of our lives to machines and computers.
I think that for many of us, these fears are a little late. Our retirement savings may already be dependent on algorithms that direct computers to trade stocks at super high speed. We already depend on sanitary systems that are incredibly complex and virtually impossible for any single person to comprehend. Sometimes a single human error or ship run aground in a canal can disrupt global systems driven by humans, machines, and algorithms. The reality is that we really don’t have the control we always like to believe that we have. We are not flying the ships of our own lives to the extent we like to believe, quite often the machines, systems, and institutions on which we depend are really flying our lives. Fully automated or not, there isn’t actually that much that we have direct control over.
As we move forward into an uncertain and confusing world, many of us will have an impulse to push back against technology, innovation, and automation. We won’t want to accept that we are as dependent on machines, algorithms, and artificial intelligence as we are and increasingly will be. We will hold back progress and development, but we will only temporarily delay the inevitability. Humans won’t be needed for many things, and while that will be scary, it may open new doors for human potential that we can’t imagine now. We should recognize that humans have never truly had control over their own lives and destinies. We have always in one way or another been flown by forces bigger than ourselves.
Adjustable Space Shuttle Components - Packing for Mars - Mary Roach - 99 Percent Invisible

Adjustable Space Shuttle Components

Imagine driving your car without an adjustable seat. Imagine if every component of your vehicle was designed for an “average” sized person. Your seat probably wouldn’t fit you right, your legs may not reach the pedals well, or your head might be bumping up against the roof of the car. Standardized sizes that can’t be adjusted and that are based on an average for each person end up failing to actually fit anyone.
But super adjustable seats are not always a great thing either. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach writes about the costs and engineering challenges that adjustable components on space stations present. “As things stand,” she writes, “NASA has to spend millions of dollars and man-hours making seats lavishly adjustable. And the more adjustable the seat, generally speaking, the weaker and heavier it is.”
When quoting NASA Crew Survivability Expert Dustin Gohmert, Roach includes, “The Russians have a much narrower range of crew sizes,” which means that they don’t have to adjust their seats, space suits, and various technology to the same extent as NASA which recruits astronauts with more varied bodies. Roach continues, “This wasn’t always the case. Apollo astronauts had to be between 5’5″ and 5’10”.” Today, however, we don’t want to limit someone’s opportunity to contribute their talents to space exploration and missions, even if they are a tad short or a bit taller than typical. We want the best people on our missions, and that means engineering expensive adjustable components with multiple potential fail points.
Adjustability is important in almost anything we design. Human bodies all come in different shapes and sizes and One-Size-Fits-All garments, seats, and utensils can normally do a good job for most, but not all of our bodies. Making the world more adjustable is definitely a slower and more expensive process, but it generally leads to better inclusion and better results for everyone. This isn’t necessarily the case for the space program, where designing ever more flexibility into the components of the system can mean more failure points and risk for everyone involved. Space travel is full of trade offs, and the trade offs can be expensive, time consuming, and even pose safety risks. Roach explores these tradeoffs in her book and looks at the ways we have calculated these tradeoffs throughout our history to show how much society has changed in terms of inclusion, thinking about designing for the average versus individual flexibility, and what it means to be human in spaces our bodies didn’t evolve to fit.
Imagine driving your car without an adjustable seat. Imagine if every component of your vehicle was designed for an “average” sized person. Your seat probably wouldn’t fit you right, your legs may not reach the pedals well, or your head might be bumping up against the roof of the car. Standardized sizes that can’t be adjusted and that are based on an average for each person end up failing to actually fit anyone.
But super adjustable seats are not always a great thing either. In her book Packing for Mars, Mary Roach writes about the costs and engineering challenges that adjustable components on space stations present. “As things stand,” she writes, “NASA has to spend millions of dollars and man-hours making seats lavishly adjustable. And the more adjustable the seat, generally speaking, the weaker and heavier it is.”
When quoting NASA Crew Survivability Expert Dustin Gohmert, Roach includes, “The Russians have a much narrower range of crew sizes,” which means that they don’t have to adjust their seats, space suits, and various technology to the same extent as NASA which recruits astronauts with more varied bodies. Roach continues, “This wasn’t always the case. Apollo astronauts had to be between 5’5″ and 5’10”.” Today, however, we don’t want to limit someone’s opportunity to contribute their talents to space exploration and missions, even if they are a tad short or a bit taller than typical. We want the best people on our missions, and that means engineering expensive adjustable components with multiple potential fail points.
Adjustability is important in almost anything we design. Human bodies all come in different shapes and sizes and One-Size-Fits-All garments, seats, and utensils can normally do a good job for most, but not all of our bodies. Making the world more adjustable is definitely a slower and more expensive process, but it generally leads to better inclusion and better results for everyone. This isn’t necessarily the case for the space program, where designing ever more flexibility into the components of the system can mean more failure points and risk for everyone involved. Space travel is full of trade offs, and the trade offs can be expensive, time consuming, and even pose safety risks. Roach explores these tradeoffs in her book and looks at the ways we have calculated these tradeoffs throughout our history to show how much society has changed in terms of inclusion, thinking about designing for the average versus individual flexibility, and what it means to be human in spaces our bodies didn’t evolve to fit.
Technological Uncertainty & Fear

Technological Uncertainty & Fear

New technologies scare people. When a new technology comes along, we react to the uncertainties of what the technology will mean. We predict worst case scenarios, fear that some sort of physiological change that we cannot control may take place, and we worry that the new technology could destroy some part of social life. We can look back at many of these technological changes and laugh at the worries and concerns of people at the time, but the truth is that we see this occur over and over in response to technological change and we are guilty, or capable of being guilty, of the same fear.
Technological fear is tied to uncertainty. Thinking about putting computer chips directly into our brains to interface directly with the internet or some type of computer hardware and software is a good example of such a fear today. What will happen if our brains can be hacked? What will happen to media, information, and social connections if we all have chips in our brain. Will we still be human (whatever that means) if we merge our brains with silicon chips?
I am currently reading about the industrial revolution in the 1800’s and early 1900’s and while people were not afraid of computer chips in their brains, they were afraid of new technology and what it would do to people and society. In a previous book I read, Packing for Mars, Mary Roach explains that this same fear and uncertainty took place when people thought about space travel and zero gravity. Space travel required immense speeds and we didn’t know if the body and mind could handle such speeds. On top of that, no one knew what would happen in zero gravity to the human body. Would normal body functions still work without Earth’s gravitational pull?
Regarding our technological uncertainty and fear, specifically with ever increasing transportation speeds, Roach writes, “over the course of history, the same sort of anxiety has appeared every time a newer, faster form of transport has come along.” Scientists feared that trains would be too fast for people, that airplanes would be too foreign from any experience the body was evolved to handle, and that all kinds of other technologies and forms of transport would zoom and shake the body into jelly. When we are uncertain about a new technology fear can take over, and we worry about a range of impacts that could occur. Humans have been doing this since at least the industrial revolution, and with robots, computer chip implants, and other changes on the horizon, we are not likely to stop any time soon.
Space Anxiety - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Space Anxiety

When I was in high school my physics class was hard for me because I had a hard time thinking about planetary bodies. I could do the math and understood the concepts, but thinking about space was just a little too much for me. I would begin to feel a panicky and dizzying sensation when I thought about astronomical sizes, about other planets, and about the total number of galaxies and planets in the universe. Whenever we had physics problems that involved large planetary bodies I had to push past this space anxiety and think about hypothetical tennis balls rather than Mercury or Jupiter.
Today I have mostly gotten over my space anxiety. I can watch Crash Course Astronomy with Phil Plait and read his blog. I can think about space, listen to podcasts about deep space, and imagine the huge vastness of space without spiraling into an existential crisis. But I have never been in space before, and according to Mary Roach, many astronauts experience a similar type of space anxiety, but on an entirely new level once they have left earth’s atmosphere.
Roach writes, “every now and then, you do come across astronauts who describe an anxiety unique to space. It’s not fear (though apparently astrohobia, fear of space and stars, does exist). It’s more of an intellectual freak-out, a cognitive overload. The thought of one hundred trillion galaxies is so overwhelming, wrote astronaut Jerry Linenger.”
Space anxiety for me occurred in a similar way, but I was not actually venturing into deep space. I was only imagining deep space from a small classroom in Reno, Nevada. I assume that the intellectual freak-out that comes form knowing how small and temporary our lives are compared to the universe itself is much worse when floating in the vacuum of space, confronted with a view of the world from the outside.
The cognitive overload that comes from our discoveries and exploration of space is the result of the size distortions of our lives. For nearly all of human history the space beyond our planet was unknown and unimportant. All that mattered was what was on Earth, but we now know that there is so much more out there. So little of what takes place on our planet will ever matter in the great vastness of space. So little of what humans throughout history have believed seems to be of any importance or relevance when we think about a hundred trillion galaxies. For my high school self, for some astronauts, and for many many people, these considerations don’t inspire awe and wonder, but trigger anxiety, overwhelm the mind, and shake foundational beliefs and understandings of life and the universe.
Irrational Antagonism - Mary Roach - Packing for Mars

Irrational Antagonism

In the book Packing for Mars, author Mary Roach was very interested in what space travel does to the human mind. Not necessarily the effects of zero gravity on the mind or the effect of being outside the Earth looking back on the planet, but the effect of being stuck in a small space, where everything is monitored, with other people, and no way to escape it all for 6 months or longer. What Roach learned is that irrational antagonism can set in, putting the whole space voyage at risk.
She writes, “Psychologists use the term irrational antagonism to describe what happens between people isolated together for more than about six weeks.” People stuck in a single spot with only each other to keep them company begin to find petty annoyances in the behaviors of the people they are with. Roach uses a quote from a French anthropologist in the Arctic to demonstrate irrational antagonism. The man came to see the very traits he initially admired about the person he was isolated alongside as annoyances and points of frustration. In other examples, people began to intentionally annoy their isolated compatriots, deliberately doing things they knew would slightly grate the other people. Even close friends can find that they begin to hate the people they are with, to pick small fights with them, or to act out passive aggressively toward them. Cooperation, coordination, and cordiality all break down as small acts of defiance build up.
In 2021 it is safe to say that many of us may have experienced some degree of irrational antagonism in the last year or so. As we have been in varying stages of lockdown across the planet, some of us have effectively been in isolation with a spouse, a roommate, or a family member whose company we genuinely enjoy…at least when we can get away from them for a little while. Humans are social creatures and we seem to desire very close relationships with immediate family members and a handful of friends. At the same time, we seem to also like our space and independence from others, and we like to (at least occasionally) also engage with groups of people, not the same small dyads or clusters. Being able to move about freely and being able to interact with numerous other people seems to help us stay balanced and helps us enjoy the people in our lives. Being too isolated with a limited number of people seems to make us less sociable and less cooperative with others. I’m sure this goes for just about everyone, regardless as to whether we consider ourselves introverts or extroverts. We need connections, both close and distant, to keep us functioning and keep us engaged in a positive sociable manner.
Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

Minimum Wage and Jobs Worth Doing

“There is some evidence,” writes Christopher Jencks in The Homeless, “that lowering the minimum wage does create more low-wage jobs. But that is not the same as creating more stable jobs in which workers come to care about the enterprise that employs them or take some pride in doing useful work.”
I like this quote and think about this idea all the time. Many of the low-wage jobs available to people at the lowest socioeconomic status in the United States are awful. They don’t pay well, they don’t have future growth opportunities, and society seemingly accepts that people working in such awful jobs will face repeated abuse from customers. We know these jobs suck and wouldn’t want our kids to have to deal with them. If we worked in a crummy food service job right out of high school or while going through college, then we know how bad they are, and hopefully have some sympathy for people working in such jobs. Nevertheless, many of us find it easier to criticize people for not working such awful jobs than criticize business owners for allowing such awful jobs to exist.
Our country often has debates about what the minimum wage should be, and while Jencks’ book is now outdated in terms of the research he cites, it is still the case that economists are often mixed on the debate as to whether raising the minimum wage increases job loss and whether lowering the minimum wage would promote jobs. Either way, the debate doesn’t get at the reality that many of the minimum wage jobs that exist are barely jobs worth having. When you factor in travel time, disrespect that comes with such jobs, and the sometimes overly demanding requirements of jobs, it is not hard to see why people don’t want to work them or don’t last in them once they do take them. Focusing just on a jobs count is inadequate compared to thinking about job quality and actual engagement and productivity. Moving forward we need to think beyond the numbers of people working and start exploring the role they are filling, whether the job is flat out awful, and whether there are more productive and rewarding things we could have people do. When viewing the jobs world in this light, future developments in automation are not as scary. Who cares if Walmart checkers lose their terrible jobs if we can find more rewarding jobs for them that suck less? This should be the mission of society and our economy, not simply hiring the maximum number of people for minimum wage work.