A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

A Vaccine for Lies and Falsehoods

Vaccines are on everyone’s mind this year as we hope to move forward from the Coronavirus Pandemic, and I cannot help but think about today’s quote from Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind through a vaccine lens. While writing about ways to build and maintain epistemic virtues Cassam writes, “only the inculcation and cultivation of the ability to distinguish truth from lies can prevent our knowledge from being undermined by malevolent individuals and organizations that peddle falsehoods for their own political or economic ends.” In other words, there is no vaccine for lies and falsehoods, only the hard work of building the skills to recognize truth, narrative, and outright lies.
I am also reminded of a saying that Steven Pinker included in his book Enlightenment Now, “any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” This quote comes to mind when I think about Cassam’s quote because building knowledge is hard, but spreading falsehoods is easy. Epistemic vices are easy, but epistemic virtues are hard.
Anyone can be closed-minded, anyone can use lies to try to better their own position, and anyone can be tricked by wishful thinking. It takes effort and concentration to be open-minded yet not gullible, to identify and counter lies, and to create and transmit knowledge for use by other people. The vast knowledge bases that humanity has built has taken years to develop, to weed out the inaccuracies, and to painstakingly hone in on ever more precise and accurate understandings of the universe. All this knowledge and information has taken incredible amounts of hard work by people dedicated to building such knowledge.
But any jackass can knock it all down. Anyone can come along and attack science, attack knowledge, spread misinformation and deliberately use disinformation to confuse and mislead people. Being an epistemic carpenter and building knowledge is hard, but being a conman and acting epistemically malevolent is easy.
The task for all of us is to think critically about our knowledge, about the systems and structures that have facilitated our knowledge growth and development as a species over time, and to do what we can to be more epistemically virtuous. Only by working hard to identify truth, to improve systems for creating accurate information, and to enhance knowledge highways to help people learn and transmit knowledge effectively can we continue to move forward. At any point we can chose to throw sand in the gears of knowledge, bringing the whole system down, or we can find ways to make it harder to gum up the knowledge machinery we have built. We must do the latter if we want to continue to grow, develop, and live peacefully rather than at the mercy of the epistemically malevolent. After all, there is no vaccine to cure us from lies and falsehoods.
More On Epistemic Vices

More On Epistemic Vices

“Here, then, is how obstructivism conceives of epistemic vices,” writes Quassim Cassam in his book Vices of the Mind, “epistemic vices are blameworthy, or otherwise reprehensible intellectual failings that systematically get in the way of knowledge.”
Leading into this quote Cassam shows that epistemic vices are behaviors, character traits, personalities, and patterns of thinking which obstruct knowledge. Epistemic vices prevent us from seeing and perceiving the world fully, inhibit us from considering all the factors necessary, and limit our openness to new information. They prevent us from using knowledge that we have acquired or inhibit connections between information in one case and its application in another. Further, epistemic vices can keep us from sharing the knowledge we have gained. In each of these ways and more our behaviors, attitudes, and thought patterns inhibit knowledge on a consistent (if not universal) manner.
In his writing Cassam also shows that epistemic vices are both reprehensible and blameworthy. Inhibiting knowledge is something we should rebuff and criticize since a lack of knowledge is likely to lead to worse outcomes for us as individuals and as societies. Improving our knowledge and the systems, structures, and institutions which foster knowledge, I think Cassam and Steven Pinker from his book Enlightenment Now, would agree is critical for the continued success and life improvements of our species.
Epistemic vices are blameworthy because we can generally assign either acquisition or revision responsibly to the individuals who have such vices. Epistemic vices exist in the characteristics, behaviors, and ways of thinking of individuals. We can’t always blame an individual for developing an epistemic vice in the first place, but if change is possible, if the vice is to some degree within their control with an avenue for identifying and eliminating the vice, then the individual is revision responsible for that vice. By training, practice, and imitation, people can become more epistemically virtuous, and the reprehensive nature of epistemic vices means that we are obligated to do so.
Altogether, epistemic vices as Cassam details, are ways of being and thinking for which we are at least partially responsible that limit the knowledge of ourselves and our societies. They can be eliminated through the cultivation of epistemic virtues, and knowledge can be fostered throughout our species in the process.
Knowledge and Perception

Knowledge and Perception

We often think that biases like prejudice are mean spirited vices that cause people to lie and become hypocritical. The reality, according to Quassim Cassam is that biases like prejudice run much deeper within our minds. Biases can become epistemic vices, inhibiting our ability to acquire and develop knowledge. They are more than just biases that make us behave in ways that we profess to be wrong. Biases can literally shape the reality of the world we live in by altering the way we understand ourselves and other people around us.
“What one sees,” Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, “is affected by one’s beliefs and background assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taking in what is in front of one’s eyes, and this creates an opening for vices like prejudice to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by perception.”
I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now where Pinker argues that humans strive toward rationality and that at the end of the day subjectivity is ultimately over-ruled by reason, rationality, and objectivity. I have long been a strong adherent to the Social Construction Framework and beliefs that our worlds are created and influenced by individual differences in perception to a great degree. Pinker challenges that assumption, but framing his challenge through the lens of Cassam’s quote helps show how Pinker is ultimately correct.
Individual level biases shape our perception. Pinker describes a study where university students watching a sporting event literally see more fouls called against their team than the opponent, revealing the prejudicial vice that Cassam describes. Perception is altered by a prejudice against the team from the other school. Knowledge (in the study it is the accurate number of fouls for each team) is inhibited for the sports fans by their prejudice. The reality they live in is to some extent subjective and shaped by their prejudices and misperceptions.
But this doesn’t mean that knowledge about reality is inaccessible to humans at a larger scale. A neutral third party (or committee of officials) could watch the game and accurately identify the correct number of fouls for each side. The sports fans and other third parties may quibble about the exact final number, but with enough neutral observers we should be able to settle on a more accurate reality than if we left things to the biased sports fans. At the end of the day, rationality will win out through strength of numbers, and even the disgruntled sports fan will have to admit that the number of fouls they perceived was different from the more objective number of fouls agreed upon by the neutral third party members.
I think this is at the heart of the message from Cassam and the argument that I am currently reading from Pinker. My first reaction to Cassam’s quote is to say that our realities are shaped by biases and perceptions, and that we cannot trust our understanding of reality. However, objective reality (or something pretty close to it that enough non-biased people could reasonably describe) does seem to exist. As collective humans, we can reach objective understandings and agreements as people recognize and overcome biases and as the descriptions of the world presented by non-biased individuals prove to be more accurate over the long run. The key is to recognize that epistemic vices shape our perception at a deep level, that they are more than just hypocritical behaviors and that they literally shape the way we interpret reality. The more we try to overcome these vices of the mind, the more accurately we can describe the world, and the more our perception can then align with reality.
We Bet on Technology

We Bet On Technology

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and he makes a good case for being optimistic about human progress. In an age when it is popular to write about human failures, whether it is wealthy but unhappy athletes wrecking their cars, the perilous state of democracy, or impending climate doom, the responsible message always see ms to be warning about how bad things are. But Pinker argues that things are not that bad and that they are getting better. Pinker’s writing directly contradicts some earlier reading that I have done, including the writing of Gerd Gigerenzer who argues that we unwisely bet on technology to save us when we should be focused on improving statistical thinking and living with risk rather than hoping for a savior technology.
In Risk Savvy, Gigerenzer writes about the importance of statistical thinking and how we need it in order to successfully navigate an increasingly complex world. He argues that betting on technology will in some ways be a waste of money, and while I think he is correct in many ways, I think that some parts of his message are wrong. He argues that instead of betting on technology, we need to develop improved statistical understandings of risk to help us better adapt to our world and make smarter decisions with how we use and prioritize resources and attention. He writes, “In the twenty-first century Western world, we can expect to live longer than ever, meaning that cancer will become more prevalent as well. We deal with cancer like we deal with other crises: We bet on technology. … As we have seen … early detection of cancer is also of very limited benefit: It saves none or few lives while harming many.”
Gigerenzer is correct to state that to this point broad cancer screening has been of questionable use. We identify a lot of cancers that people would likely live with and that are unlikely to cause serious metastatic or life threatening disease. Treating cancers that won’t become problematic during the natural course of an individual’s life causes a lot of pain and suffering for no discernable benefit, but does this mean we shouldn’t bet on technology? I would argue that it does not, and that we can see the current mistakes we make with cancer screening and early detection as lessons to help us get to a better technological cancer detection and treatment landscape. Much of our resources directed toward cancer may be misplaced right now, but wise people like Gigerenzer can help the technology be redirected to where it can be the most beneficial. We can learn from poor decisions around treatment and diagnosis, call out the actors who profit from misinformation, uncertainty, and fear, and build a new regime that harnesses technological progress in the most efficient and effective ways. As Pinker would argue, we bet on technology because it offers real promises of an improved world. It won’t be an immediate success, and it will have red herrings and loose ends, but incrementalism is a good way to move forward, even if it is slow and feels like it is inadequate to meet the challenges we really face.
Ultimately, we should bet on technology and pursue progress to eliminate more suffering, improve knowledge and understanding, and better diagnose, treat, and understand cancer. Arguing that we haven’t done a good job so far, and that current technology and uses of technology haven’t had the life saving impact we wish they had is not a reason to abandon the pursuit. Improving our statistical thinking is critical, but betting on technology and improving statistical thinking go hand in hand and need to be developed together without prioritizing one over the other.
External Versus Internal Goals

External Versus Internal Goals

I don’t think about it as much any more, but several years ago I was nearly obsessed with the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. I ran cross country in high school and at the time I was very motivated by winning medals, winning a state championship, and impressing my friends and family. After graduating and starting college, I was no longer on a team, but I was at the peak of my running and I was still motivated by shiny medals and bragging rights. For a long time, my motivation with running was extrinsic and I was focused more on external versus internal goals.

 

However, after I finished my undergrad and started working, got married, and eventually returned for more school, I had to re-think my motivation with running. I have asthma, so I was never quite able to be the best runner in any given race, but I was always competitive and if I got lucky I could win a race here or there. I could live up to the external goals that I set for myself. But once I started working 40 hour weeks and had to balance my time between work, a new wife, and eventually returning to school, I couldn’t run enough or be competitive enough to match those external goals. If I was going to keep running at all, my motivation had to be intrinsic, and I had to identify internal goals that could challenge me and keep me motivated. This is why a few years back my mind was constantly thinking about ideas of motivation.

 

The last few years, extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and external versus internal¬† goals haven’t been on my mind as much, but thoughts about motivation and goals came back to me while reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s book Risk Savvy. When discussing recent increases in rates of anxiety among young people today he writes:

 

“The best explanation can be found in what young people believe is important in life: in the distinction between internal and external goals. Internal goals include becoming a mature person by strengthening one’s skills, competences, and moral values, and living a meaningful life. External goals have to do with material rewards and other people’s opinions, including high income, social approval, and good looks. People’s goals have shifted steadily since the end of World War II toward more and more extrinsic goals. Annual polls of college freshman showed that recent generations judged being well off financially as more important than developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

 

I think that Gigerenzer’s message is a little overblown and has a little kids these days element to it, but I think the trend he identifies is generally correct, but possibly mischaracterized*. Studies have shown that our overall level of wealth or wellbeing doesn’t really mean much to us and isn’t predictive of happiness. Our expectations and a sense of improved wellbeing and opportunity is predictive of happiness. Today, young people are more connected to the world. They see more possibilities, see more ways to use and spend wealth, and have a much bigger world than children around the time of WWII. A child growing up in a small town around the 1950’s or 1960’s may have been impressed by the dentist’s house and new car, but today, a child growing up in a small town can see far more opulence than the dentist’s Mercedes. He can easily log into any social media platform and see LeBron’s mansion and Drake’s new Bugatti. It may not be that people’s goals have shifted between external or internal, but that the external goals have become far more conspicuous, expensive, and extravagant, making them all the more noteworthy and hard to reach.

 

Combine this increase in expectations of wealth and standards of living with a near constant consumer culture messaging in TV, radio, and social media advertisements, and it is not hard to imagine that external goals have become more important than internal goals as Gigerenzer notes. We are presented an image of a successful life that is full of material possessions, to the point of being unattainable. Having financial wealth, owning a large home, and having lots of toys is presented as more than just an image of success, it is in some ways presented as a morally correct way to live.

 

The problem, as I learned with running, of having external versus internal goals, is that you can’t always live up to external goals based on the ideas, skills, and thoughts of other people. No matter how hard I trained, I was simply never going to be the best runner in my city because I have asthma. On top of that, I have other constraints that are inherent to the life I live. By sticking to external goals, I would have been burnt out and defeated, likely giving up running completely. Much of the motivation and goals we set for ourselves in life are similar to the goals I had with running. We want a certain income level, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, and a certain car to go with it all because all those things will impress other people. External goals create pressures that don’t need to exist, and can drive us to anxiety as we try to impress other people.

 

Internal goals are more realistic and can be more appropriately tailored to our actual interests, abilities, and limitations. For example, I have goals around running that are focused on health, avoiding injury, and feeling good about my physical shape. I can still have goals around running a certain mileage or a certain pace, but I try hard to calibrate those goals around my own abilities rather than the performance of my friends. Internal goals that are focused on growth and development rather than displays of wealth and social status are healthier and can actually help us achieve more than external goals that don’t align well with who we are and how we actually want to live. In the end, being able to recognize this and adjust our goals is important if we want to flourish and avoid unnecessary stress and anxiety.
*I wrote this post about a week ago, and since then have read a section of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now which further challenges Gigerenzer’s assertion that college students these days are different than college students of the post-war period. Pinker notes that studies like the ones that Gigerenzer highlights are unreliable because it is almost impossible to accurately compare different cohorts at different times. Far more people attend college today than they did during the post-war period. It is possible that even more people with intrinsic motivations for learning attend college today, but that they may be outnumbered in surveys by students with external motivations. It is possible that the increasing number of students just changed the mixture of responses, and doesn’t represent some overall change in human mindsets. Pinker presents additional challenges to these long-term comparisons which I will try to link to in a future post.