The Complexities of Society

The Complexities of Society

I have a hard time debating and arguing with friends about how to think about society. A large reason why is because, at best, I often find myself making the argument of, “well, maybe?”  Politics is a never ending attempt to answer the question of who gets what and when. We have scarce resources like money, roads and infrastructure, and influence and fame. These things are distributed across individuals with deliberate decisions and sometimes seemingly by random chance. Occasionally we step in to try to change these allocations, to provide greater rewards and incentives for those who pursue certain resources and goals over others, and punish those who deviate from courses we find appropriate. But figuring out how people will react to any given decision and figuring out which levers will lead to which outcomes is nearly impossible. I almost always find myself unsure exactly that the changes people advocate for will really have the desired impact or that the problem they identify is really caused by the root cause they suggest. I often find myself saying, “well, maybe” but having a hard time convincing others that their thoughts should be less certain.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker discusses the complexities of society when writing about how hard it is to identify a single factor that has lead people to become less violent over time. Especially in WEIRD societies, there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that people are less violent today than they used to be, but it is hard to point to a single (or even a few) key factor and explain how it (they) reduced human violence. As Pinker writes, “a society is an organic system that develops spontaneously, governed by myriad interactions and adjustments that no human mind can pretend to understand.”
 
 
The best social science experiments that we can develop and the best models from social science only manager to explain about 40% of the variance that we observe across societies. We cannot singularly point to racism, inequality, or the percent of high school graduates and understand a given social outcome. We can see correlations, but rarely do we see a correlation that explains anywhere close to 50% of the differences we observe between desired and undesired social outcomes. We are unable to point to a given factor (or even a handful of given factors) and confidently say that we have identified the most important or the clear driving factor(s) that determine(s) whether someone is a success or a failure, whether a society is peacefully democratic or violently autocratic, or whether a society’s economy will boom or bust.
 
 
This is why I am so frequently stuck with, “well, maybe,” as a response to so man of my friend’s arguments. When a friend or family member is convinced that people need to change one thing in order to make the world a better place I remember that the best social science models explain less than half the variance. So pointing to a single factor and claiming that the world would be dramatically better if we changed that factor doesn’t feel convincing to me. Maybe it would have an impact, but maybe it wouldn’t. The complexities of society prevent us from ever being certain that a single change or a single decision will ever have the intended outcome we expect or hope for.
Genetic Evolution is More Complex Than You Think

Genetic Evolution Is More Complex Than You Think

A little while back I remember learning about something within genetic evolution that really surprised me. Genes that are immediately next to each other on a chromosome tend to stick together during cellular division. Physics is at play in the way that chromosomes line up and pull apart during cellular division and the separation of genes in both eggs and sperm. This can have a strange effect on how some genes get passed along. Imagine you have a gene that is crucial for survival, such as a gene that codes for whether lungs develop and a gene that is somewhat negative for survival, like a gene that makes your immune response a little less effective. If these two genes are immediately next to each other on a chromosome, then they will likely be passed along together, because it would be hard for them to be separated. If you don’t get the lung development gene, you also don’t get the weak immune system gene, but you don’t develop in the womb. If you get the lung development gene, you also get the weak immune system gene. The genes are passed along in the standard evolutionary process, but one gene seems actively harmful to survival.
 
 
I share this story because it demonstrates that genetic evolution is more complex than I had ever thought. I hadn’t considered the way that physics could influence which genes are passed along. Scientists could spend time trying to find exactly why a weak immune system gene is beneficial for survival and what competitive advantage that gene gave to a species for it to be favored by evolution. However, the real answer would just be that the gene was stuck next to a more important gene, so it kept getting passed along. An inadvertent deletion that would have inactivated the weak immune system gene may have also damaged the lung development gene, making it more likely that evolution would favor the two genes being passed along without errors together.
 
 
Looking at more complexity within genetic evolution, Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens writes, “a microorganism belonging to one species can incorporate genetic codes from a completely different species into its cell and thereby gain new capabilities, such as resistance to antibiotics.” We think of evolution as a chain, with organisms and species slowly evolving as random typos provide advantages or disadvantages to a species. But this is too simple of a model as Harari’s quote shows. A microorganism can take in genetic information from outside, completely transforming that organism in a single generation.
 
 
Science also knows, however, that this kind of genetic adoption is not limited to microorganisms. There is evidence that sweet potatoes evolved when a virus infected a potato plant and inserted its DNA into the plant. The potato adopted DNA from a different organism and started down a new evolutionary path toward becoming the modern sweet potato. This sounds like a very niche and strange thing, but it is something humans are now exploring through CRISPR technology that may be able to cure many genetic disorders.
 
 
Genetic evolution is not a simple chain. It is much more complex than we think, and there is likely more we will discover that will demonstrate how complex the system truly is.
Complexity and Cultural Decisions

Complexity and Cultural Decisions

In the United States, and in much of the world, people are reexamining the histories and cultures that built the lives that people live. There is a push to disavow ancestors who were brutal to other people, to disavow groups that committed genocides and atrocities against others, and to disavow the cultural practices of people’s who dominated other groups. Whether it is the Black Lives Matter movement and the 1619 Project in the United States, countries formerly dominated by the British Empire working to redefine themselves beyond their colonial past, or native peoples trying to reestablish a culture that was oppressed by explorers hundreds of years ago, people across the globe are attempting to make difficult decisions about how to understand their culture of oppression and celebrate that culture moving forward without becoming as bad as their former oppressors.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the dilemma such people face. He writes, “whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically diving the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere.” History is challenging. For example, while we generally dislike the history of British colonization, arguments can be made that countries colonized by the British had better outcomes than countries that were not colonized. Additionally, it is hard to separate what is truly derivative from one culture relative to another, especially after decades or centuries of cultural dominance and back and forth cultural influence. Simply arguing that history would have been better one way or another, or arguing that a culture should get rid of everything associated with “bad guys” is an insufficient way to think about how a culture should relate to its past.
 
 
In the United States this seems to be part of the problem with the sharp divide over the Black Lives Matter movement or Critical Race Theory. White people see these movements and fear that their cultural history is immediately tainted as bad and evil. Rather than feeling as though their cultural heritage has anything worth celebrating, they feel as though people are turning on their cultural heritage and disavowing anything that came from it, ultimately threatening the lives of white people today. If we want to address the cultural problems of white slave holders, it is important to recognize how difficult and thorny our cultural histories in the United States are, and to recognize that we cannot simply say that white people are evil (or have been evil). We cannot paint with a broad brush and must instead consider the nuances and complexities as we think about how American culture can move forward. In the United States this means that black people must be considerate of how their culture was influenced by white dominance, but also how their culture persisted and influenced the United States in positive ways. White people must also look back and not see their ancestors as purely evil. We can eliminate statutes and monuments to people who do not deserve to be praised, but we can also still celebrate aspects of our historical culture that propelled us to where we are. It is a difficult path to navigate, and probably doesn’t lend itself to a solid sense of balance, because cultures are too complex for dichotomies and balance. 
Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

Cognitive Dissonance is Vital

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset.”
 
 
Cognitive dissonance refers to the inconsistencies within our beliefs. It doesn’t feel like it, but all of us have incompatible beliefs. The simple example that Harari uses in the book to demonstrate incompatible beliefs is the example of liberty merged with equality. At the extremes, these two values, which are central to effectively all functioning democracies, are entirely incompatible. On the margin, the two require constant trade-offs where one value is applicable in one situation but not as applicable in another. We argue whether one person’s liberty should be curtailed for another person’s equality, whose liberty and whose equality matters most, and what measures of liberty and equality should be the most important. There is no perfect rule for delineating between equality and liberty or finding the right balance and mixture between the two incompatible views. Cognitive dissonance is what enables us to manage.
 
 
“Consistency is the playground of dull minds,” writes Harari. Great stories involve conflict and challenges with what a character knows they should do versus what they want to do. Much of art is in some ways about conflict, overcoming limitations, and somehow trying to merge the incompatible. Cognitive dissonance is our ability to live with conflicting and contradicting views without recognizing it. It enables us to have complex societies and to pursue individual goals while simultaneously being dependent on others. Like in art, where conflict creates something more interesting and engaging, cognitive dissonance in our lives enables us to live richer and more interesting lives – even if those lives are based on incompatible beliefs, ideas, actions, and values.
Transportation & Jobs

Transportation & Jobs

As I reread the quote for today’s post and the supporting paragraph for additional context, my first thought was simply to write about the importance of transportation to jobs and how overlooked transportation can be for those who have well functioning cars and the resources to maintain and repair cars. For many of us who live in suburbs, our Nation’s public transportation infrastructure is largely invisible and unknown. I was going to write about the ways in which our ignorance of public transportation has failed people in need and people at the lower socioeconomic levels, ultimately crushing the idea that people are poor and homeless simply because they are dumb and lazy. I was going to argue that we should be more considerate and push back against the American individualism we prize so highly if we are successful.
 
 
But instead, I’ll reference that idea in my opening paragraph and focus on the complexity of the world around us and use this post to explain why so many people prefer not to think about homelessness and poverty. The challenges are too complex for anyone to fully grasp, and the solutions are not always obvious.
 
 
In his 1993 book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “It is also likely that the limits of public transportation directed women toward lower-status, lower-paying jobs, since these tend to be the jobs best served by public transportation. Those sleek, stand-alone buildings around the Washington Beltway, for example were far less accessible by public transportation than were lower-paying jobs in fast food and retail establishments stretched out along main arteries in the downtown areas.”
 
 
Liebow explains that homeless women are often able to be presentable and work decent clerical jobs in offices that could help them find their footing and begin to build the stability needed to find a place to live. However, getting to these kinds of jobs is often difficult. Bus lanes don’t always get out to the office parks where such jobs exist, and I know from my own experience in cycling around Reno, NV that sometimes bike lanes don’t go to the office parks or industrial centers where stable low-wage jobs exist. Instead, getting to a fast food restaurant, where hours may be unpredictable and pay may be even lower, is often easier for those experiencing homelessness. If you live in a shelter and have to be inside the shelter by a certain time each evening, lower pay and lower security jobs may end up being your only option.
 
 
We want the homeless to find jobs, but we also want to live in suburbs and have our offices relatively close to our homes, especially if there is no real reason for our offices to be located in a downtown center. We want to have ample parking at the office and wide avenues for us to drive down to reach our destination quickly. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t want the things that make it easy for homeless individuals to reach the same places where we work (this may even be by design though few would want to admit it). Addressing the challenges of homelessness may mean making changes to the systems that housed and working people count on to make their lives marginally easier – a tough sell.
 
 
To truly tackle the issue of homelessness we need to think about the kinds of jobs available to people, but job availability is often driven by huge and complex market forces. As individuals we are all trying to scrap for our own jobs and job security, and we don’t want to give up either to help another person – especially if we see that other person as less deserving than ourselves. Where our jobs are located is sometimes driven by where the employees live, sometimes driven by local taxes, and sometimes driven by other factors (like good internet and a well connected airport). People need to have jobs to escape homelessness, but jobs are unpredictable and respond to more forces than even a strong government agency could control.
 
 
I think people who really want to help end up crushed by the complexity of homelessness. This jobs example is only one aspect of the complexity of homelessness that may leave those who want to help feeling like there is nothing they can do. We want people to work, but finding and maintaining a job, especially a solid job that allows for personal growth is not easy, especially for those who have not been working. With so much complexity it is not surprising that many people simply avoid thinking about the issue, or adopt oversimplified views of homelessness, its causes, and its solutions. The reality, however, for those who wish to make a difference in the world of homelessness, means that multiple complex factors all need to be considered and navigated in order to get more people into stable housing. Multiple factors have to be addressed in tandem before we can really address the housing and homelessness crises that our nation faces.

Undeserving Poor

Undeserving Poor

Our nation encourages us to look at the outcomes within our lives as the product of our own doing. How hard we work, how much effort we make to learn and get ahead, and how well we do with making good decisions determines whether we are successful, poor, addicted to drugs, healthy, and happy. This is the narrative that drives our lives, and any failure within any area of our life ultimately represents some type of personal or moral failure by us as individuals. However, is this really an accurate way of looking at humans living within complex societies? Should everything be tied to this sense of hyper personal-responsibility?
Matthew Desmond questions this idea throughout his book Evicted, but he also shows how dominant and entrenched this idea is. Even among our nation’s poorest who have faced extreme difficulties and poverty, the idea of personal responsibility is still the driving narrative around life. Writing about individuals in poverty living in a trailer park Desmond writes, “Evictions were deserved, understood to be the outcome of individual failure. They helped get rid of the riffraff some said. No one thought the poor more underserving than the poor themselves.” Even those living in the deepest poverty, those who have ostensibly failed the most within our capitalistic society, see each other as personal failures, not as victims of a system that was stacked against them. They don’t see themselves as getting swept up in a system and society that didn’t help provide enough support, guidance, and opportunity for them. They only see the bad choices that have landed people in the trailer park, and subsequently driven them out through eviction.
The reality is that as individuals we still exist within a society. We are still dependent on numerous social systems and institutions which shape the reality of the worlds we inhabit and the opportunities and possibilities available to us.  Drug use, for example, use seems like an individual decisions, however research on adverse childhood experiences and the impact of loss of meaning, social connections, and opportunity, shows that there are social determinants that drive drug use across communities. What seems like simply an individual decision based entirely on personal morality has numerous dimensions that cannot be explained simply by individual level decisions.
Desmond argues that evictions are also not something we should see as simply personal failures. There are numerous factors that can push an individual toward a downward spiral that ends in eviction. There are numerous points where social systems and institutions seem designed to drive poor people to failure. Blaming individuals for their own failure and subsequent eviction hides the ways in which we are all responsible to a system that either lifts us all up, or allows some of us to fail spectacularly. Focusing just on an individual’s poor decisions, and not seeing those decisions as a consequence or symptom of larger structural failures means that we can never address the root causes that push people toward failure, poverty, drug use, and eviction. It is easy to blame the individual, but it is inadequate.
On "The Media"

On “The Media”

“The media” is a  term that is frequently used to categorize journalists, newspapers, and broadcast news shows. We often use “the media” in a negative way, complaining about coverage of events in unfair and oversimplified ways. “The media” always seems to have an agenda, a narrative, and a specific concern plucked from the zeitgeist that will fade away without a real resolution. But this idea is a bit misleading. Categorizing only news sources as “the media” misses out on a lot of media consumption that we engage with every day. It also lumps together news organizations and sources that have vastly different ways of operating, different profit motives, and different general beliefs. Even within a single news or media source there can be things that are terrible, things that are marvelous, and things that we barely notice.
Challenges with “the media” have existed as long as news and media have existed. Books, even fiction books, have been burned and banned almost as long as books have existed. People expressing heretical views against churches or governments have also received the same fate across human history.  But “the media” has been a lens through which we have understood the world past and present. Expanding our view of media to include books, movies, podcasts, and even TikTok videos shows us how media consumption can be cultural cornerstones of our highest values and simultaneously cesspools of rot.
In the George Herriman biography Krazy, author Michael Tisserand includes a quote from a critique written by Gilbert Seldes in the Pittsburgh Sun in the 1920’s. Tisserand’s passage reads:
“In his initial appraisal of Krazy Kat [George Herriman’s celebrated comic strip], he wrote that the cult of the genius of the comic strip who has created the fantastic little monster is a growing one. He added if we have to condemn utterly the press which demoralizes all thought and makes ugly all things capable of beauty, we must still be gentle with it, because Krazy Kat, the invincible and joyous, is a creature of the press, inconceivable without its foundation of cheapness and stupidity. He is there to enliven and encourage and to give much delight.
I really like this quote when viewed through the lens of “the media” that I have been trying to lay out in this post, even though Seldes uses “the press” in the quote above. Categorizing “the media” as entirely worthless or negative or alternatively categorizing “the media” as a cornerstone of democracy is an overly broad brush with which to paint news and information ecosystems. There are things we may hate about “the media” but there are also things we may find invaluable and necessary. Thinking clearly about the media requires that we delve into the particulars, understand the profit motives, understand the competition, and understand the forces that drive the things we like and dislike.
Individually, we are probably powerless to change the course of “the media” or how we talk about “the media.” However, we can think about the choices we make in relation to “the media” and to our friends, family, and colleagues. We can engage in meaningful and deep topics, or we can become enraged over shallow and meaningless topics. We can enjoy the cultural reflections of the shallow or we can criticize them. Ultimately, “the media” is a product of our humanity, and we can project onto it what we want, but we shouldn’t categorize an entire institution as rotten or democracy saving as a whole. “The Media” is complex and has multiple layers running throughout each interconnected element.
The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

The Illusion of Free Will & Computer Software

Judea Pearl uses soccer as an analogy to demonstrate the usefulness of freewill, even if it is only an illusion, in The Book of Why. Pearl argues that believing we have free will, even if it doesn’t exist as we believe it does, has been helpful for humans throughout our evolutionary history. He argues that being able to communicate about our intentions, desires, and actions through a lens of free will has helped us develop agency to improve our existence as a species and survive.
Pearl also views the illusion of free will as a two tiered system that helps our species survive through agency by attributing responsibility to individuals. He communicates this idea through the language of computers by writing, “when we start to adjust our own software, that is when we begin to take moral responsibility for our actions. This responsibility may be an illusion at the level of neural activation but not at the level of the self-awareness software.”
Pearl is arguing that our consciousness (software) is different from our neural activity (the computer hardware equivalent of the brain). In this sense, Pearl is viewing consciousness and free will as a dualist. There is the electrical activity of the brain, and the software (our thinking and self-awareness) running on top of that electrical activity. While we might not be able to directly change the neural activity and while it may be automatic and deterministic, the software packages it runs are not, they are in a way revisable, and we are responsible for those revisions. That is the view that Pearl is advancing in this argument.
I think this idea is wrong. I understand the dualist view of consciousness and use that model most of the time when thinking about my thinking, but I don’t think it reflects reality. Additionally, throughout human history we have used technological analogies to explain the brain. Always equating the brain and thinking to the best technologies of the day, we have viewed the brain as having some sort of duality about it. The brain was once viewed as hydraulic pumps and levers, and today it is compared to computerized hardware and software.
I don’t have a full rebuttal for Pearl. I recognize that our experience feels as though it is not deterministic, that there seems to be some role for free will and individual agency, but I can’t go as far as Pearl and actually assign revision responsibility to our consciousness. I agree with him that the illusion can be and has been useful, but I can’t help but feel that it is a mistake to equate the brain to a computer. I don’t truly feel that even within the illusion of free will we are entirely revision responsible for our consciousness (the software/operating system). I think that comparing us to a computer is misleading and gives people the wrong impression about the mind, and I’m sure that in the future we will replace the hardware/software distinction and thoughts with different and more complex technologies in our analogies.
Complex Causation Continued

Complex Causation Continued

Our brains are good at interpreting and detecting causal structures, but often, the real causal structures at play are more complicated than what we can easily see. A causal chain may include a mediator, such as citrus fruit providing vitamin C to prevent scurvy. A causal chain may have a complex mediator interaction, as in the example of my last post where a drug leads to the body creating an enzyme that then works with the drug to be effective. Additionally, causal chains can be long-term affairs.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl discusses long-term causal chains writing, “how can you sort out the causal effect of treatment when it may occur in many stages and the intermediate variables (which you might want to use as controls) depend on earlier stages of treatment?”
This is an important question within medicine and occupational safety. Pearl writes about the fact that factory workers are often exposed to chemicals over a long period, not just in a single instance. If it was repeated exposure to chemicals that caused cancer or another disease, how do you pin that on the individual exposures themselves? Was the individual safe with 50 exposures but as soon as a 51st exposure occurred the individual developed a cancer? Long-term exposure to chemicals and an increased cancer risk seems pretty obvious to us, but the actual causal mechanism in this situation is a bit hazy.
The same can apply in the other direction within the field of medicine. Some cancer drugs or immune therapy treatments work for a long time, stop working, or require changes in combinations based on how disease has progressed or how other side effects have manifested. Additionally, as we have all learned over the past year with vaccines, some medical combinations work better with boosters or time delayed components. Thinking about causality in these kinds of situations is difficult because the differing time scopes and combinations make it hard to understand exactly what is affecting what and when. I don’t have any deep answers or insights into these questions, but simply highlight them to again demonstrate complex causation and how much work our minds must do to fully understand a causal chain.
Rules of Thumb: Helpful, but Systematically Error Producing

Rules of Thumb: Helpful, but Systematically Error Producing

The world throws a lot of complex problems at us. Even simple and mundane tasks and decisions hold a lot of complexity behind them. Deciding what time to wake up at, the best way to go to the grocery store and post office in a single trip, and how much is appropriate to pay for a loaf of bread have incredibly complex mechanisms behind them. In figuring out when to wake up we have to consider how many hours of sleep we need, what activities we need to do in the morning, and how much time it will take for each of those activities to still provide us a cushion of time in case something runs long. In making a shopping trip we are confronted with p=np, one of the most vexing mathematical problems that exists. And the price of bread was once the object of focus for teams of Soviet economists who could not pinpoint the right price for a loaf of bread that would create the right supply to match the population’s demand.
The brain handles all of these problems with relatively simple heuristics and rules of thumb, simplifying decisions so that we don’t waste the whole night doing math problems for the perfect time to set an alarm, don’t miss the entire day trying to calculate the best route to run all our errands, and don’t waste tons of brain power trying to set bread prices. We set a standard alarm time and make small adjustments knowing that we ought to leave the house ready for work by a certain time to make sure we reduce the risk of being late. We stick to main roads and travel similar routes to get where we need to go, eliminating the thousands of right or left turn alternatives we could chose from. We rely on open markets to determine the price of bread without setting a universal standard.
Rules of thumb are necessary in a complex world, but that doesn’t mean they are not without their own downfalls. As Quassim Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, echoing Daniel Kahneman from Thinking Fast and Slow, “We are hard-wired to use simple rules of thumb (‘heuristics’) to make judgements based on incomplete or ambiguous information, and while these rules of thumb are generally quite useful, they sometimes lead to systematic errors.” Useful, but inadequate, rules of thumb can create predictable and reliable errors or mistakes. Our thinking can be distracted with meaningless information, we can miss important factors, and we can fail to be open to improvements or alternatives that would make our decision-making better.
What is important to recognize is that systematic and predictable errors from rules of thumb can be corrected. If we know where errors and mistakes are systematically likely to arise, then we can take steps to mitigate and reduce those errors. We can be confident with rules of thumb and heuristics that simplify decisions in positive ways while being skeptical of rules of thumb that we know are likely to produce errors, biases, and inaccurate judgements and assumptions. Companies, governments, and markets do this all the time, though not always in a step by step process (sometimes there is one step forward and two steps backward) leading to progress over time. Embracing the usefulness of rules of thumb while acknowledging their shortcomings is a powerful way to improve decision-making while avoiding the cognitive downfall of heuristics.