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. 
More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

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