Understanding the Past

Understanding the Past

I am always fascinated by the idea, that continually demonstrates validity in my own life, that the more we learn about something, the more realize how little we actually know about it. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I am continually struck by how often Harari brings in events from mankind’s history that I had never heard about. The more I learn about the past, or about any given subject, the more I realize how little knowledge I have ever had, and how limited, narrow, and sometimes just flat out inaccurate my understandings have been.

 

This is particularly important when it comes to how we think about the past. I believe very strongly that our reality and the worlds in which we live and inhabit are mostly social constructions. The trees, houses, and roads are all real, but how we understand the physical objects, the spaces we operate, and how we use the real material things in our worlds is shaped to an incredible degree by social constructions and the relationships we build between ourselves and the world we inhabit. In order to understand these constructions and in order to shape them for a future that we want to live in (and are physiologically capable of living in) we need to understand the past and make predictions about the future with new social constructs that enable continued human flourishing.

 

To some extent, this feels easy and natural to us. We all have a story and we learn and adopt family stories, national stories, and global stories about the grand arc of humanity. But while our stories seem to be shared, and while we seem to know where we are heading, we all operate based on individual understandings of the past, and where that means we are (or should be) heading. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his  book Thinking Fast and Slow, “we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less that we believe we do.”

 

As I laid out to begin this post, there is always so much more complexity and nuance to anything that we might study and be familiar with than we often realize. We can feel that we know something well when we are ignorant of the nuance and complexity. When we start to really untangle something, whether it be nuclear physics, the history of the American Confederacy, or how our fruits and veggies get to the supermarket, we realize that we really don’t know and understand anything as well as we might intuitively believe.

 

When we lack a deep and complex understanding of the past, because we just don’t know about something or because we didn’t have an accurate and detailed presentation of the thing from the past, then we are likely to misinterpret and misunderstand how we got to our current point. By having a limited historical perspective and understanding, we will incorrectly assess where our best future lies. It is important that we recognize how limited our knowledge is, and remember that these limits will shape the extent to which we can make valid predictions for the future.
Availability Cascades

Availability Cascades

This morning, while reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I came across an idea that was new to me. Harari writes, “Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. … Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it.”  The idea is that chaotic systems, like societies and cultures, are distinct from chaotic systems like the weather. We can model the weather, and it won’t change based on what we forecast. When we model elections, on the other hand, there is a chance that people, and ultimately the outcome of the election, will be influenced by the predictions we make.  The chaos is responsive to the way we think about that chaos. A hurricane doesn’t care where we think it is going to make landfall, but voters in a state may care quite a bit and potentially change their behavior if they think their state could change the outcome of an election.

 

This ties in with the note from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow which I had selected to write about today. Kahneman writes about availability cascades in his book, and they are a piece of the feedback mechanism described by Harari in level two chaos systems. Kaneman writes:

 

“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. One some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.”

 

We can think about any action or event that people and governments might take as requiring a certain action potential in order to take place. A certain amount of energy, interest, and attention is required for social action to take place. The action potential can be small, such as a red light being enough of an impetus to cause multiple people to stop their cars at an intersection, or monumental, such as a major health crisis being necessary to spur emergency financial actions from the Federal Government. Availability cascades create a set of triggers which can enhance the energy, interest, and attention provided to certain events and bolster the likelihood of a public response.

 

2020 has been a series of extreme availability cascades. With a global pandemic, more people are watching news more closely than before. This allows for the increased salience of incident of police brutality, and increases the energy in the public response to such incidents. As a result, more attention has been paid to racial injustice, and large companies have begun to respond in new ways to issues of race and equality, again heightening the energy and interest of the public in demanding action regarding both racial justice and police policy. There are other ways that events could have played out, but availability cascades created feedback mechanisms within a level two chaotic system, opening certain avenues for public and societal action.

 

It is easy to look back and make assessments on what happened, but in the chaos of the moment it is hard to understand what is going on. Availability cascades help describe what we see, and help us think about what might be possible in the future.
Why We Talk About Human Nature

Why We Talk About Human Nature

I entered a Master’s in Public Administration program at the University of Nevada in 2016. I started the same semester as the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. I was drawn toward public policy because I love science, because I have always wanted to better understand how people come to hold political beliefs, and because I thought that bringing my rational science-based mind to public policy would open doors and avenues for me that were desperately needed in the world of public administration and policy. What I learned, and what we have all learned since President Trump took office, is that politics is not about policy, public administration is not about the high minded ideals we say it is about, and rationality is not and cannot be at the heart of public policy. Instead, politics is about identity, public administration is about systems and structures that benefit those we decide to be deserving and punishing those who are deviant. Public policy isn’t rational, its about self-interest and individual and group preferences. And this connects to the title of this post. We talk about human nature, because how we can define, understand, and perceive human nature can help us rationalize why our self-interest is valuable in public policy, why one group should be favored over another, and why one system that rewards some people is preferable over another system that rewards other people.

 

In Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes, “policy is ultimately about people, what they want and what is best for them. Every policy question involves assumptions about human nature, in particular about the choices that people may make and the consequences of their choices for themselves and society.” The reason why we talk about human nature is because it serves as the foundation upon which all of our social systems and structures are built upon. All of our decisions are based in fundamental assumptions about what we want, what are inherently inclined to do, and how we will behave as individuals and as part of a collective. However, this discussion is complicated because what we consider to be human nature, is subject to bias, to misunderstandings, and motivated reasoning. Politics and public policy are not rational because we all live with narrow understandings of what we want human nature to mean.

 

Personally, I think our conceptions and ideas of human nature are generally too narrow and limiting. I am currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and he makes a substantial effort to show the diversity and seeming randomness in the stories that humans have created over tens of thousands of years, and how humans have lived in incredibly different circumstances, with different beliefs, different cultures, and different lifestyles throughout time. It is a picture of human nature which doesn’t quite make the jump to arguing that there is no human nature, but argues that human nature is a far more broad topic than what we typically focus on. I think Harari is correct, but someone who wants questions to religion to be central to human nature, someone who wants capitalistic competition to be central to human nature, or someone who wants altruism to be a deep facet of human nature might disagree with Harari.

 

Ultimately, we argue over human nature because how we define human nature can influence who is a winner and who is a loser in our society. It can shape who we see as deserving and who we see as deviant. The way we frame human nature can structure the political systems we adopt, the leaders we favor, and the economic systems that will run most of our lives. The discussions about human nature appear to be scientific, but they are often biased and flawed, and in the end what we really care about is our personal self-interest, and in seeing our group advance, even at the expense of others. Politics is not rational, we have all learned in nearly four years of a Donald Trump Presidency, because we have different views of what the people want and what is best for them, and flawed understandings of human nature influence those views and the downstream political decisions that we make.
Seeing Agents

Seeing Agents

As I got about half-way through my undergraduate degree, a key thought process in my brain began to change. It was an intentional change on my part, and one that took quite a lot of effort. After several years I was able to stop seeing agency in things that were not alive. I was able to get away from the mindset of everything happens for a reason and I started to accept that some things were random, some things were only imbued with meaning by me, and potentially everything in the universe is the result of physical laws of nature.

 

Today I don’t believe that the table at which I write has any emotional experience of me using it to type out a blog post. I don’t think my car actually knows if I drive it today, and I don’t think that it has some preference deep inside to be driven. I don’t believe that the house I am about to move out of will actually be sad (or happy) to see me leave. But there was a time in my life where a piece of me may have believed such things. I certainly knew the houses, stuffed animals, and cars were not alive, but somewhere deep inside I was assigning agency to inanimate objects, imbuing them with emotions, thoughts, and desires of their own.

 

It is more than just cartoons that made me think the way I did about inanimate objects, and that is why it took several years late in my undergraduate degree to begin changing the way I thought about the world. I was seeing agents where there were none, and it was hard to remove agency from things that I had animated in my own mind. Research presented in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow helps explain what was happening inside my mind:

 

“The perception of intention and emotion is irresistible; only people afflicted by autism do not experience it. All this is entirely in your mind of course. Your mind is ready and even eager to identify agents, assign them personality traits and specific intentions, and view their actions as expressing individual propensities. Here again, the evidence is that we are born prepared to make intentional attributions…” 

 

Kahneman describes a study in which participants watch geometric shapes chase each other around on a screen. People see random shapes and assign meaning, intention, and agency to the two dimensional objects. We create a story that justifies the behavior we intuit from them and gives them life. Our mind is geared to see agents where there are none, probably to help us understand other people, to be able to reflect on our own emotions, and to become better social beings. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens discusses how the cognitive revolution may have brought about this ability in our minds, by giving us the capacity for imagination, and the capacity to create narratives and stories to foster social cohesion and shared meaning.

 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter much if you name your car and view it as having agency, you might even treat it better if you do. However, this can spill over into other aspects of our lives in problematic ways. We can become too attached to material objects, unable to let go of clutter and stuff. As Kahneman continues, and as I’ll write about tomorrow, this is also likely part of why we see the world so often through religious eyes, and conflicting religious beliefs and values have certainly been at the root of much violence and death in human existence, even if religion has given us community and social mission. Seeing agents where they do not exist is an interesting part of our humanity, and it can help us gel together, or can serve as the base for out-casting others and bringing violence upon them. Its not easy to overcome, but I think it is necessary if we are to have accurate beliefs about the world and advance as a global community.