Evaluating Our Post Truth Moment

During the Trump Presidency I frequently heard people saying that we now live in a “post truth” society. People simply believe what they want to believe, the former President included, and reality or veracity of information no longer matter. All sources of knowledge were valid, as long as the source provided the information we wanted to believe.
 
 
But do we really live in a post truth society? I am not so sure that truth no longer matter. I am also not sure that what we are seeing with people choosing to believe things that cannot possibly be true is actually new. What seems to have happened during the Trump Presidency is that numerous people became dramatically attached to Trump, the identity he represented, and the cultural values he reflected. They agreed that they would not validate or recognize any information that ran against what Trump said or that was politically damaging for him. People chose to exercise political power over the veracity of information. That is disconcerting, but it isn’t really anything new in humanity. We hadn’t seen it in the United States at such a high level (at least not in my 30 year life-time) but humanity has seen such behavior in the past.
 
 
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, and the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty – all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.” The post truth moment we lived through included knowledge grounded in many of the fields that Pinker suggests we discard and also mirrors past human experiences of deriving knowledge from such fields. Trump was not the only authoritarian to claim that something was right (and to believe it himself) simply because it came from him or was something he said. Trump was elected on the dogma that a good business person was needed to run the government like a good business and the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty played a role in many people feeling that Trump’s electoral victory (or demise) was inevitable.
 
 
And all of these things have been seen in the past. Pinker writes, “the history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible.” We were afraid of the post truth moment that Trump fueled, but it was nothing new and on the other end we seem to be doing a better job of tying our knowledge and beliefs to empirical facts and data. Despite the upheaval of Trump’s four years in office, for almost all of us, our success in society is dependent on accurate interpretations of reality, not on illusions and beliefs born out of faith, tradition, or pure desires of how we want reality to be. In some large and concerning ways truth may take a back seat to our own desires, but for almost all of us, our daily lives still depend on accurate information.
Truth is a Poor Test for Knowledge

Truth is a Poor Test for Knowledge

We live in what is being called a post-truth world, where facts don’t seem to stand up on their own and motivated reasoning drives what people believe. Politicians, activists, and people of note say wild things without regard to accuracy. Against this backdrop, many people have begun to argue that we need more truth in our news, statements, and beliefs.
 
 
This quest for truth is noble, but also has its downsides. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of how standards around truth can become self-defeating and can contribute to people’s motivated reasoning and cynicism around information. Science has moved very quick with regard to COVID-19, but that has often meant changing recommendations for how to stay healthy. We have changed what we know about infection rates, hospitalization rates, treatment, prevention, and death. This means that what people know and believe about the disease may change on a weekly or monthly basis, and consequently public policy and recommendations change. Unfortunately, that change can be a difficult process. Former Press Secretary Sean Spicer unfairly used the quick changes in science around COVID for political purposes in a tweet. On the other end of the spectrum, people are not happy with how slow some regulations update in the face of changing science, as George Mason Economist Bryan Caplan unfairly mocked in another tweet.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari would argue that truth shouldn’t be the goal. In his book Sapiens, Harari writes, “truth is a poor test of knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.” We treat scientific knowledge and information about the world as clear and deterministic. The reality is that our scientific knowledge and understanding of the world is incomplete, especially on a personal level. We all live with models for reality, and we should not make complete truth and accuracy our goal. We should strive to be as accurate and truthful as possible, but we should recognize that knowledge comes from how well our models work in the real world. Improved information along with more accurate and true knowledge should help us perform better, do new things, make new advances, and improve the world. We don’t have to mock science, policy, or the statements of others. We need to look for ways to update our models and theories so that we can do the most with what we know. We should be willing to update when we learn that our information is not true or accurate. Holding ourselves to impossible truth standards doesn’t help us build knowledge, and can actually be an obstacle to developing knowledge. 

Newness in Science

“Modern science has no dogma,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. “Yet it has a common core of research methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations – those we can observe with at least one of our senses – and putting them together with the help of mathematical tools.” Harari continues to explain that science may not be dogmatic, but that there are two key defining aspects of modern science that set it apart from the ways that humans have traditionally understood the world. Those two aspects are the reliance on mathematics in understanding observations and the desire to seek out new knowledge and observations.
 
 
Mathematics gives us a common language to discuss observations and allows us to compare observations for veracity. Newness pushes our observations and knowledge in a continuously expanding manner. Relying on tradition, historical knowledge, and existing information has not been enough for science to advance. Newness has been a central idea in the basic structure of modern science. Harari writes, “as modern people came to admit that they did not know the answers to some very important questions, they found it necessary to look for completely new knowledge.”
 
 
New information is rewarded in academic institutions and drives the way that modern universities work. You can work at a college as a lecturer without doing research, but the prized positions are primarily research positions. As a researcher at a university you are rewarded for the number of papers you publish, and journals want to publish novel scientific studies. The goal of science today is to take what we already know and push beyond. Science doesn’t just help us better understand what has come before us, but helps us push into new worlds. We use math and the scientific method to make and communicate our discoveries.
 
 
This is a new approach from most of human history. We don’t simply assume we already have the answers or that our current knowledge will be sufficient into the future. We look backward less than we look forward. Science is centered around what we can do with our knowledge, expanding that knowledge, and doing new things with it.
 
 
Admitting Collective Ignorance

Admitting Collective Ignorance

I generally agree that we are too confident in our opinions and judgments about the world. We live with a lot of complexity and very few of us are superforcasters, carefully considering information and updating our knowledge as new information comes along. We rely on personal experiences and allow ourselves to believe things that we want to be true. However, there are some modern institutions which help push back against this knowledge overconfidence.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions “ (emphasis in original). As Harari notes, physicists openly admit that we cannot study what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang and scientists cannot explain what consciousness is or how it arises. On the largest problems science is great at admitting collective ignorance, something that is very unique among humans. Throughout our history many humans have attempted to answer the most important questions through narratives and stories, resulting in religions and dogmas. For modern science to eschew this trend is rather remarkable.
 
 
I would say that modern science actually goes a step beyond admitting collective ignorance in the largest questions we can ask. Something I often noted during my masters program, where we read a great deal of academic public policy and political science papers, was how often we could argue that authors were confident in their findings in the body of the paper (sometimes overstating the impact of their finding) only to admit in the conclusion that their study was limited in scope and could not be generalized to broader contexts. Within social sciences at least, papers encourage researchers to place their work within an appropriate context, and from my experience, the best papers do a good job of being honest and realistic about their conclusions. They admitted ignorance even when identifying effects that appeared to be real.
 
 
Humans cannot admit ignorance in business, politics, and religion. A CEO who admitted that the company didn’t really know what was happening and that they were operating from a place of ignorance probably won’t be CEO for long – especially not if they face a stretch of bad luck. Very few voters would elect a candidate who admitted to being ignorant on much of the world. Religions (in my view – which could be wrong) seem to provide more answers than admissions of ignorance (although Christians at least seems to admit that humans cannot understand their deity’s decision-making process).
 
 
Science is a unique place where we can admit that we don’t know much, even when announcing findings and things we have learned from careful study. This is one of the strengths of science and something we should do a better job communicating.  An admission of ignorance within science is a sign that scientific institutions are functioning well. That seems to have been forgotten at times during the pandemic, and often has been mocked by people who are unhappy with regulations and decisions by public policy officials.
Discovering That Humans Don't Know Everything

Discovering That Humans Don’t Know Everything

Humans have a great ability to explain the world through narratives that seem to make sense. One problem, however, is that our narratives may feel coherent, but fail to accurately reflect the true nature of reality. We are great at explaining why things happen a certain way, at identifying causal relationships between phenomenon, and creating reasons for why things are the way they are. We are not great at recognizing when we don’t know something and when our explanations couldn’t possibly be correct.
 
 
Yuval Noah Harari sees humans overcoming our tendency to create incorrect explanations of the world as a major development toward the Scientific Revolution. In his book Sapiens, he writes, “The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.” From our modern vantage point, this is obvious. We just launched the JWST into space to help us understand questions to which we do not have answers. And even with the incredible power that the telescope has, it won’t tell us why there is a universe at all rather than nothing. There are questions we realize that we do not have actual scientific answers for.
 
 
In the past, we used narratives to explain the unexplainable. Religious explanations are not scientifically based, but create compelling and relatable narratives to why the world is the way it is. Magic and other supernatural phenomena explained everything from earthquakes to human economic behavior. They felt correct on an intuitive level, but couldn’t possibly explain reality in an accurate way.
 
 
The Scientific Revolution required that humans acknowledged gaps in knowledge. It required acknowledging that narratives and myth were insufficient to explain the true nature of the world. From this starting point humans could begin to make objective measures of the world around them, could test their causal explanations, and could begin to understand the world in a way that assumed there were lessons to learn and that myth and stories didn’t contain all the answers we need.
Why Study History? Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan Blog

Why Study History?

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks why we should study history if history is not deterministic. If history was deterministic, then we would be able to look back in time at what has happened and determine where things will go next. We would  be able to see clear causal links between events of the past and easily adjust our behaviors and decisions moving forward. If history was truly deterministic, then the trite saying, “those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it,” would actually mean something.
 
 
But history is not deterministic. There are random changes, chance events, and other unpredictable factors that influence everything from technological development, to GDP, and even marriage and family structures. We can look back and create a compelling narrative, but the causal power of our explanations is extremely low. We can see the how of history, that is how things unfolded, but not the why, not the causal structures underlying everything.
 
 
And that makes it reasonable to ask why we should bother studying history at all. Harari responds to this inquiry by writing, “history is not a means for making accurate predictions. We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.”
 
 
History helps us see that racial hierarchies, monarchies, and other aspects of life and culture are based on little more than chance. It helps us understand that humans can live in more ways than we imagine and can have more experiences than we imagine. History doesn’t help us predict what is going to happen in the future and doesn’t tell us how we should live now, but it does help us see that the world is not as rigid as we may imagine. History should expand our knowledge of the possible and humble us in the choices and decisions we make.
Inter-Subjective Linking - Tying Star Wars, Marvel, Sports Rankings, Democracy, and Marriage Norms Together - Yuval Noah Harari - Joe Abittan - Sapiens

Inter-Subjective Linking

In my own mind I like to play out lots of fictional scenarios before I go to bed. If I have recently watched a Marvel movie, then I might be teaming up with Iron Man or Captain America in my own superhero story while I brush my teeth. If I was listening to a Star Wars audio book, then I might be engaged in a space battle while my day winds down. Since I was a kid I have had my own running fantasies with me as a main character in some of the science fiction stories I like the most. In my own mind, these stories are as real as the stories that appear on the big screen.
 
 
My individual stories, something the nerd community might call my own “head canon,” are subjective. They exist only within my own consciousness, and as a result I can change them or abandon them and they will no longer exist. They are subjective to my own individual consciousness, not dependent on the subjective consciousness of others and if I want I can completely ignore the rest of the world or certain aspects of the larger story.
 
 
Contrasting my individual fictions are the larger narratives that I engage with in my mind. The stories that make it on the big screen, onto a streaming platform, or into official books are inter-subjective. In the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari describes the existence of the inter-subjective by writing, “the inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Iron Man has died in the current Marvel story line, and his death is now part of the inter-subjective communication network linking all the fans of the Marvel movies. In my own mind Iron Man might come back to life, but my individual consciousness doesn’t change the larger story which is inter-subjectively linked.
 
 
Outside the world of science fiction, inter-subjective linking is an important part of human societies. We see it in sports rankings, political organization, and marriage and family norms. We debate which sports team is better and have our individual opinions about who is a great player and what teams are the best. We can individually believe that our team will win the championship, should be ranked #1 in the country, or got screwed out of the playoffs without our subjective beliefs influencing how the sports season actually plays out. We can also have inter-subjective beliefs about sports that drive the narratives around the season and can lead to coaches being fired, players being traded, and coordinated booing at bad officiating calls.
 
 
Within politics and marriage and family norms we can have our individual beliefs, such as beliefs that one political system would be better than another, beliefs that polygamy is better than monogamy, or that kids need to leave the house at 18. There is nothing that makes representative democracies inherently better than divine monarchies, nothing that makes monogamous relationships inherently better than polygamous relationships, and no reason kids should be afforded the option to live at home after they turn 18. In each of these areas our inter-subjective beliefs have come to shape the way we understand the world, our relationships to others within the world, and our subsequent beliefs about how the world should ultimately be ordered. Representative democracies fit with other inter-subjective beliefs which have come to discredit divine monarchies. Monogamous relationships have certain advantages in helping ensure more men find romantic and life partners which blends with other inter-subjective beliefs that form the backbone of modern stable societies. The idea that one becomes and adult and full citizen at 18 and not 17, 19, or 21 is also an inter-subjective belief that we support together. It makes no difference if I decide that a young man is an adult at age 17 rather than 18. Inter-subjectively, our culture has agreed that full citizenship begins at 18.
 
 
Thinking about the relationship between the subjective and inter-subjective is helpful for understanding the world. It is helpful to see that our individual beliefs are often little more than our own twist on a fictional story. It is helpful to see that larger institutions and structures in our worlds are based on little more than shared fictions. Recognizing this dynamic can change the way we interpret and approach debates and arguments about topics for how we all should live and coordinate our lives together.
Political Myths

Political Myths

Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
 
 
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
 
 
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
 
 
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
 
 
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
 
 
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.
Shepherds

Shepherds

“It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
I don’t like bucolic narratives and I don’t like the way that we equate people we don’t like with sheep in modern American political discussions. Bucolic romanticism requires a reductionist way of looking at history, and equating people to sheep is reductionist way of viewing anyone we disagree with and dislike. As Harari’s quote to open this post shows, both styles of rhetoric are much older than their current usage in modern American politics.
 
 
What Harari is saying in the paragraph that the opening quote came from is that some agrarian societies and ancient (and not too ancient) human civilizations treated their domesticated animals very well. Sheep were well cared for, in order to get the most wool possible from them. War horses and workhorses were well cared for, again for the benefit of humans. And even today we pamper our pets as if they were our children. The narrative of the shepherd comes from the care with which humans are capable of treating animals under their protection. A shepherd is a benevolent god who directs his flock to greener pastures and protects them from wild beasts and the evils of nature. Bucolic imagery calls up a simplistic time when humans lived in nature, protected and shielded from the evils of modernity. Combining these two perspectives allows people to feel a child-like protection under the watchful eye of a benevolent leader while we live in a natural peace and harmony with the planet.
 
 
I think the narrative associated with both narratives is deeply troubling, and untrue. David Deutsch was recently on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and argued that the belief that we are living in a simulation is no different than believing that Zeus is the supreme god who directs the course of the world. His argument is that if we live in a simulation, there is a barrier at which we can no longer gain more information about the universe. A Simulation, he argues, is the same as a religion where there is a barrier at which people cannot know more about their god, the course of the universe, and why things happen. Invoking the imagery of a shepherd, to me, seems to be exactly the same. A leader comes along, invokes such a message, and says to the people they wish to lead that only they know how to help them, that there is a barrier which normal people cannot cross in terms of knowledge for what is good for them and how to live their lives. The shepherd seems benevolent, kind, and praiseworthy, but really, they are dehumanizing people. They are making statements that there is knowledge and information that only they can know and appropriately utilize, and they are hiding that from the masses. The same process happens in reverse when we call people sheep. We deny their humanity and assume they are non-thinking morons without preferences who are easily misled.
 
 
Bucolic imagery can be just as pernicious as the ideas and narratives surrounding the shepherd or equating people to sheep. Just as the idea that there is some boundary on knowledge which normal people cannot surpass, the idea of a bucolic nature to which we should return or maintain is equally flawed and inaccurate. We romanticize a past and a ‘natural’ way of living that never existed. We don’t fully understand what life with nature has been like for the billions of humans that evolved before our modern times. We fail to see the diseases, the dangers, the struggles, and the deaths of humans living in pre-modern times. We call up this idea to put people in a romantic and child-like state of mind, reassuring them that someone else will take care of them and protect them. It is a narrative that combines well with the narrative of the shepherd to create a false view of reality that we can find comforting, and that we may find the motivated reasoning to believe. Ultimately, however, I think bucolic thinking and the narratives of sheep and the shepherd should be tossed aside and discounted if we want to think more accurately and rationally. 
The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

It is not fun to face ambiguity and questions that we don’t have any hope of answering. Humans don’t like sitting with the unknown, and we don’t like admitting that there are questions, some very important and definitive, that we simply have no way of answering. Some questions we know we cannot answer at this point, but we expect to be able to answer, and some questions there is almost certainly no hope of answering within our lifetimes, and perhaps not within the entire lifetime of our planet or sun. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still ask such questions.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably hope to answer. … Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,0000 years of human history with the excuse that the people that lived back then did nothing of importance.”
In this quote, Harari is specifically referring to scholars who don’t ask questions about ancient humans living in times before modern tool use. Such humans didn’t leave an obvious trace through items which can be identified and discovered through archeological explorations. Their tools and items were made of organic materials that decomposed. Their major advances came in languages which were not written down and preserved. Their important contributions to human evolution were psychological and cultural, and didn’t easily leave a trace that could survive 70,000 years of weathering, continental drift, volcanic explosions, floods, and human resettlement. As a scholar, why spend time and put your career on the line investigating questions you can’t answer, knowing that you won’t produce journal articles and research presentations for your non-answers?
It is understandable why scholars don’t ask the questions they have no hope for answering, even beyond questions of early human cultures, but Harar thinks they should. By asking such questions, we remember to think about important factors that can be ignored or easily discounted. We can limit our view of history to only those things that left material imprints and traces on our planet. We can overlook details that we might otherwise find important. As an example, Harari shows how early humans still changed the world around them, primarily through hunting and the use of fire, even if the hunting often involved chasing an animal until it died of exhaustion or burning a part of a forest to force animals out of hiding. We might not find a lot of physical tools and evidence of such behavior, but the changes in the ecology and environment may be detectable. For 60,000 years early Homo Sapiens changed the planet, even though we can’t always detect how. Failing to ask questions about such humans and their cultures, questions we can’t find evidence and information to answer, means that we overlook their contributions to the changes of the planet. Failing to ask unanswerable questions means we also fail to ask questions for which we do have some hope of finding answers. It also means we ignore important areas and topics, leaving them for people who want to abuse history and science with myth and narrative that may not have a hope of actually being accurate or discarded as junk without serious minds thinking about the topic.