Thursday, September 27, 2018

I don't know

Some of the most terrifying research of which I’m aware relates to the nature of human cognition, and the question of how we make decisions.

You and I assume that we are rational organisms, which is to say: when we are faced with contradictory data, or with a complex choice, that we consider the facts involved, weigh probabilities and consequences, think things through, and then come out the other end with what we think is the best answer.  The implication of this is that our decisions are perfectible, which is to say: if we get something wrong, it’s because we misjudged the data, or had bad inputs, or there was something wrong with the mechanism of calculation.  If we just do a better job of screening out irrelevancies, or consult better sources, or work on being smarter, we can make a better decision next time.

All of these pleasant possibilities are thrown into chaos by the neuroscientific research of Benjamin Libet, and the subsequent work which builds on his.  To greatly simplify (and maybe oversimplify) his conclusions, Libet claims that, through measuring the electrical activity of the brain of a person involved in making a decision, it can be proved that the portions of the brain governing action activate prior to the portions of the brain responsible for cognition.  The implication is:  the conscious “thinking” we do is not decisionmaking.  It is post-facto justification for a decision that is being made by some other, more opaque part of ourselves.  We will never get better at making decisions, because the part of us that makes decisions is beyond our understanding or control.  We will remain idiots forever.


It’s possible to read too much into Libet’s work.  Not all decisions are necessarily made in the same way, and clinical trials that measure one type of decision-making may not accurately account for factors present in different decision contexts.  And some of the successor studies are sketchy, and a number of the media accounts of these studies are very obviously massaging the data to justify an ideologically convenient conclusion.

Ah, but there's the rub.  What keeps popping up, in Libet’s work, and in the later work, and even in the indictments of the later work, is that we believe what we want to believe.  Which is to say:  we are good at rationalizing in support of our pre-existing world-view, and equally good at rationalizing away inconvenient evidence. 

Scientific American posted a terrific article full of examples of this.  The ability of vaccination opponents to continue to justify claims about autism that were based in a study which has been revealed to be an outright forgery.  The ability of UFO Cults to preserve their beliefs even in the face of having specific predictions of specific events on specific days empirically falsified. The resilience of 9/11 Truthers or of people who believe that Barack Obama was an Indonesian Muslim agent.  I would add certain beliefs prevalent on the left to this list, for instance: the belief that testosterone affects every aspect of human development that occurs below the neck but nothing that goes on above it, or that human behavior is almost entirely the product of environmental influences, with the exception of sexual orientation, which is carved in stone in the womb.  If any of the above statements alienate you, fine: choose the irrational predilections of your preferred outgroup, and pretend those are the only ones I referenced. 

My point is:  we are good at building up walls against facts and narratives which challenge the core of who we are.  I’m no exception.


I increasingly worry that my life as a high school debate coach has been lived in the service of a lie.  Specifically: people in my profession like to believe that we train young people to think.  If Libet and his cohorts are correct, it might be more accurate to say that we train young people to rationalize. Good debaters are skilled at marshaling data and anecdotes; GREAT debaters are skilled at framing arguments, which is to say, they learn to leverage data to activate the core narratives that govern the behavior of the people listening.  But these skills have little to do with the critical investigation of ideas.

Being good at saying “that guy over there is wrong and here’s why” is a useful skill for a variety of professional applications.  Persuading neutral observers of the truth of a proposition is probably less so; there seems to be very little communication these days between parties who genuinely and fundamentally disagree, and precious few neutral observers to be found.  Still, I can see how that skill might conceivably be valuable in a pinch.  But I’m increasingly convinced that the most important dialogue in which we can engage is internal: a process of calling into question our own deep-seated narratives of how the world works in a spirit of true openness to change.  Personal improvement must, by definition, begin with a single assertion:  I might be wrong.

And debate as an activity, and debaters as individuals, are terrified of those words.  “I might be wrong” is a statement fundamental to the building of successful relationships, but it has no utility in the context of a competitive argument with a designated winner and loser.  Perhaps the ugliest habit debate coaches build in the young people under our care is the cultivation of certainty at all costs.

I have long trained my first-year debaters to respond to questions asked in cross-examination that they don’t know the answers to by saying, “I don’t know”.  Don’t lie or bareface your way through it, I tell them. If the question is unimportant, point that out.  Write the question down.  Bring it to me after the round and we’ll see if we can’t reason our way through it together.

The community of debate judges—experienced competitors and laypeople alike--decisively repudiates my advice on this issue.  When my kids say “I don’t know,” they lose, and the fact that they said it is cited as a primary reason why.  In this way, the community reinforces the idea in my students’ minds that while intelligence is useful, certainty is essential.  If you don’t know, they are told, pretend that you do.

It’s terrible advice. False certainty is poison.

As a child, I thought my parents knew everything.  I assumed that knowledge would descend upon me in a cloud, possibly slowly in stages, but certainly that by my eighteenth birthday I would have attained what children’s author David Wisniewski called “The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups.”  I suspect that the dawning awareness that my parents were not omniscient, and the resulting horror at the fact that maybe nobody in the world had any idea what they were doing, may have had something to do with my teenage petulance.

And my subsequent adult petulance, as well.  Because it is readily apparent to me that the world is run by adults who 1. Get selected as leaders because they’re marvelously good at pretending that they know what they’re doing, and at denying any possibility that they don’t, and 2. That these people are lying through their teeth. 

The best of them may have the advantage of good personal judgment, or an intelligent willingness to surround themselves with people who have strong knowledge bases in one field or another and to defer to those people.  But specific recent evidence would suggest that the sort of person who is best at projecting an aura of absolute certainty is, in fact, a person who IS absolutely certain, which is to say:  a fool.  And that the more insistent we are that our leaders project certainty, the less likely we are to wind up with leaders who defer to intelligent subordinates, or who…and here’s a radical thought…dispense with central control entirely, and instead respect the ability of individual citizens to make decisions in their own interest.


I think it is urgently necessary to rediscover the beauty of the phrase “I don’t know.”  I think we need to learn to respect intellectual humility as a virtue. 
I think we need to think about all of those elaborate, carefully constructed systems created by the most intelligent people, with the purest of intentions, which produced spectacular misery and utter catastrophe, and which could not be abandoned because to admit a mistake would have been to un-do the core not just of the leaders’ authority, but of their reasons for existence.

I think we need to reflect on all those juries, who evaluated the evidence presented to them by skilled advocates, and the testimony of witnesses credible and incredible, and who retired to review the evidence collectively, and who emerged with carefully considered unanimous verdicts that subsequently turned out to be 100% objectively wrong.  We have shielded ourselves with the belief that those people were emotional idiots and that we ourselves, rational beings through-and-through, would do differently. But us rational beings keep wandering into jury boxes and fucking up spectacularly, over and over, and I think it may be time to contemplate the possibility that those jurors might have been people very much like ourselves who were as certain in their decisions as we are in our own.

I think we need to understand that we ourselves, like other people, are inclined to buy into narratives that support our own, and to treat as “facts” stories which support those narratives.  And I think we need to do a better job of policing ourselves in situations where our core beliefs are being activated.


For instance.

Let’s say you are confronted with two very different narratives, both of them concerning the events of a night thirty-five years ago.  The narratives are incompatible.  One of the parties involved says: I was at a party, and I was accosted by a pair of young men who intended to rape me and possibly to kill me, and that’s one of them right there.  And the party accused says:  not only was it not me, but the party never happened and I have never engaged in behavior remotely similar to that which is ascribed to me.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that there is no actual physical evidence of any sort presented, and that no contemporaneous reports of wrongdoing were produced.  Instead, you are presented with emotionally intense testimony by both parties, and a parade of character witnesses.  Who do you choose to believe?

If your core narrative is that sexual assault is an American epidemic, that men in America wield power capriciously, treat women as a means to the end of their own desires and are never held to account, and that the political party of which the accused is a member is interested in extending and indeed doubling down on that pernicious reality, then you will tend to believe, and to treat as credible, the views of the accuser.  You will believe that the accused is at best engaged in willful denial enabled by alcohol-induced amnesia and at worst just straight lying through his teeth.

If your core narrative is that public concern about sexual assault has transformed over time into a witch hunt, in which evidence is considered irrelevant and the presumption of innocence inconvenient, and that the Democrats have their backs to the wall and will at this point say literally anything to perpetuate the blindness of the legal system to the butchery of one million babies every year, then you will believe, and treat as credible, the views of the accused.  You will believe that the accuser was perhaps assaulted by someone else and has subsequently, over thirty-five long years, superimposed the face of the accused over that of an assailant whom she couldn't identify.  Or instead maybe you decide that she is part of a broad-based conspiracy to bring down an innocent man, and that the ever-wilder accounts we're hearing of the accused’s misbehavior by an growing list of accusers are proof of this conspiracy.

You'll believe her.  Or you'll believe him. You will believe so strongly as to be certain. But your certainty will be unjustified.  In neither case will you be reasoning based on physical evidence or specific facts about the night in question.  You will be superimposing your favorite narrative on that event, and placing the two very real human beings involved in this horrific public drama in roles within that narrative.

And if somebody reacts to the whole spectacle by saying that they don’t know what happened on that night in 1982, you will perhaps revile them even more than people on the opposite side of the debate, because it will seem that they are abdicating even the basic level of moral responsibility involved in taking a side; that they are using waffling as a cop-out for their utter lack of any principle whatsoever; that they are willfully blind and trash humans and of no use to anyone, not even worth the trouble of engaging with.

But it will remain true that the people you watched on television today were actual humans.  They are not paid actors.  To them, this was real.  And to reduce them to placeholders in your narrative is to dehumanize them entirely.

And to pretend certainty about events of which there is no physical evidence, and to which there were no witnesses, is to tell yourself a soothing lie: the lie that your narrative is correct on all occasions, and that so long as you cling to it, you are a soldier on the side of righteousness.

The worst monsters in history were people not very different from you and me.  And the belief that their narrative was always correct, and that there could be no incorrect action congruent with it, was the elixir that they drank that transformed them into monsters.


I don’t know.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Strange Economics: finding my niche

I’m fortunate to be included in Strange Economics.  Edited and produced by Canadian writer David Schultz, it’s a speculative fiction collection in which every story applies at least one economic concept in fantasy or science fiction settings. It’s unmistakably a highbrow piece of work, and as such, it tends to reward attentive, educated, and intelligent readers.

As a writer, I am prone to an unhealthy attitude towards anthologies.  The competitive side of my personality tends to take over, and I wind up comparing my work to the other works included.  This never takes me anywhere pleasant.  If I judge my work to be inferior to that of the other authors included, I wonder if I’m dragging the overall product down; whether I was the last one in the door; whether they’re all snickering at me behind my back.  If I feel my work is among the better pieces included, I wonder whether I couldn’t have sold it somewhere more prestigious.  Long story short: I am a cantankerous, neurotic bastard, and can't be dealt with.

My contribution to this particular work is entitled “The Rule of Three.”  Originally drafted shortly after Terry Pratchett’s death as a tribute piece, it explores a world in which witchcraft has recently come out of the closet as a legitimate scientific discipline with economic and industrial applications—and in particular, the attempts of middle-aged divorcee Hecate Bowersgrove to keep her small-business alchemy shop afloat while under siege from big-box rivals.  It’s a fun piece, but I can't say that it's likely to radically expand anyone's intellectual horizons.

This makes it something of an odd duck where this particular anthology is concerned, because there are some very profound, weighty pieces herein.  For instance:  the anthology opens with Neil James Hudson’sThe Slow Bomb”, which explores the oft-considered question “what is the monetary value of a human life” through a particularly grim and imaginative thought experiment.  Batting third is “Have Icthyosaur, Will Travel” by DK Latta, a sort of Jurassic World for smart people which takes seriously the economic and environmental implications of dropping a bunch of captive dinosaurs into the world.  And in between these two expertly crafted and deeply considered pieces is my own story, featuring the zany madcap antics of imps and trolls.

While I initially felt a bit beyond my depth, the story has been well received to this point, and in seeing that, I think I’m coming to a better understanding of how an editor might choose to construct an anthology of this kind.  Yes, you need strong, serious pieces of work to serve as the weight-bearing elements of the structure.  But even fans of that style of writing (and I’m a huge sucker for stories that test the limits of my thinking) will occasionally want to set down the burden for a while and enjoy something a little lighter. To that end, there’s stories like mine, and also M James’s “The Slurm,” a laugh-out-loud take on monster slaying with a playful style that’s entirely particular to the author, and entirely delightful.

Again, though, I’m mostly into the stuff that makes me think.  And man alive, there’s a LOT of that stuff in here.  I can’t restrain myself to my usual habit of highlighting three particular favorites, because there’s just so many; in addition to the stories listed above, there’s also Jack Waddell’s “The Short Soul,” in which the gods of death cope with the scarcity issues brought on by humans achieving clinical immortality; JM Templet’s “Shape, Size, Color and Lustre,” which introduces a South American-flavored mythology which is unfamiliar to me and may be entirely original, and Karl Dandenell’s “Supply and Demand Among the Sidhe,” in which Queen Titania’s trade embargo sparks a flurry of innovation by the fantastic denizens of her faerie realm.  The line-by-line writing in this last work is absolutely elite and the story itself worthy of contention for the highest awards in the genre.

And even THAT’s not my favorite thing in the anthology, because Jo Linsday Walton’s afterword essay is clever enough, and insightful enough, to leave us mere fiction writers deep in the shade.  I suspect that the essay also contains clues regarding Ms. Walton's involvement in the anthology in a different role, though others may find that take a bit rich.

In the end, in spite of my anthology-related neuroses, inclusion in Strange Economics is honor enough for me to set impostor syndrome aside and just enjoy the ride.  There’s some hardcore writers and thinkers here, and it’s a genuine pleasure to be seen in their company.  I’m glad to have invested myself in it, and I think many of you will want to buy in as well.