Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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More Whales Please

I was struck by this quote in the paper cited in my last post:

The biosphere considered as a whole has managed to expand the amount of solar energy captured for metabolism to around 5%, limited by the nonuniform presence of key nutrients across the Earth’s surface — primarily fresh water, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Life on Earth is not free-energy-limited because, up until recently, it has not had the intelligence and mega-engineering to distribute Earth’s resources to all of the places solar energy happens to fall, and so it is, in most places, nutrient-limited. (more)

That reminded me of reading earlier this year about how whale poop was once a great nutrient distributor:

A couple of centuries ago, the southern seas were packed with baleen whales. Blue whales, the biggest creatures on Earth, were a hundred times more plentiful than they are today. Biologists couldn’t understand how whales could feed themselves in such an iron-poor environment. And now we may have an answer: Whales are extraordinary recyclers. What whales consume (which is a lot), they give back. (more)

It seems we should save (and expand) the whales because of their huge positive externality on other fish. If humans manage to increase the fraction of solar energy used by life on Earth, it will be primarily because of trade and transport. Transport gives us the ability to move lots of nutrients, and trade gives us the incentives to move them.

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Good Job Templeton

Whatever else the Templeton Foundation may have done wrong, they have done very right by funding the research behind two new papers, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal. The first paper reviews what evidence of aliens we should expect to see:

We motivate the \^G infrared search for extraterrestrial civilizations with large energy supplies. We discuss some philosophical difficulties of SETI, and how communication SETI circumvents them. We review “Dysonian SETI”, the search for artifacts of alien civilizations, and find that it is highly complementary to traditional communication SETI; the two together might succeed where either one, alone, has not. We discuss the argument of Hart (1975) that spacefaring life in the Milky Way should be either galaxy-spanning or non-existent, and examine a portion of his argument that we dub the “monocultural fallacy”. We discuss some rebuttals to Hart that invoke sustainability and predict long Galaxy colonization timescales. We find that the maximum Galaxy colonization timescale is actually much shorter than previous work has found (<109 yr), and that many “sustainability” counter-arguments to Hart’s thesis suffer from the monocultural fallacy. We extend Hart’s argument to alien energy supplies, and argue that detectably large energy supplies can plausibly be expected to exist because life has potential for exponential growth until checked by resource or other limitations, and intelligence implies the ability to overcome such limitations. As such, if Hart’s thesis is correct then searches for large alien civilizations in other galaxies may be fruitful; if it is incorrect, then searches for civilizations within the Milky Way are more likely to succeed than Hart argued. We review some past Dysonian SETI efforts, and discuss the promise of new mid-infrared surveys, such as that of WISE. (more)

The second paper describes a plan to look for some key evidence:

We describe the framework and strategy of the \^G infrared search for extraterrestrial civilizations with large energy supplies, which will use the wide-field infrared surveys of WISE and Spitzer to search for these civilizations’ waste heat. We develop a formalism for translating mid-infrared photometry into quantitative upper limits on extraterrestrial energy supplies. We discuss the likely sources of false positives, how dust can and will contaminate our search, and prospects for distinguishing dust from alien waste heat. We argue that galaxy-spanning civilizations may be easier to distinguish from natural sources than circumstellar civilizations (i.e., Dyson spheres), although Gaia will significantly improve our capability to identify the latter. We present a “zeroth order” null result of our search based on the WISE all-sky catalog: we show, for the first time, that Kardashev Type III civilizations (as Kardashev originally defined them) are very rare in the local universe. More sophisticated searches can extend our methodology to smaller waste heat luminosities, and potentially entirely rule out (or detect) both Kardashev Type III civilizations and new physics that allows for unlimited “free” energy generation. (more)

I’ll be quite surprised if they see anything, as I find hard to believe that, if they have existed nearby for a billion years, aliens wouldn’t already be plenty visible in their first result. But the issue is plenty important enough to look carefully anyway.

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Cyprus Mail Profile

From a wide-ranging profile of me in the Cyprus Mail (a newspaper):

I’ve learned a bit about his lifestyle – [Hanson] reads widely; he goes biking; he likes movies, and peruses ‘100 Best Films’ lists to check how many he’s seen – but not very much. A profile is supposed to be personal, I remind him. But he shakes his head.

When interviewers talk to a musician or an athlete (or indeed a well-known academic), he points out, they’re forever asking them to ‘tell me about the rest of your life’ – yet “the way people become famous musicians or athletes is to focus so much of their energy on this professional thing, [so] there usually isn’t much of a ‘rest of their life’. And that’s not a message people usually want to hear, so they make up silly things in order to seem personal.”

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Open Thread

This is our monthly place to discuss related topics that have not appeared in recent posts.

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Pretty Smart Healthy Privilege

In our social world, people who are prettier (or hotter) can wear a wider range of clothing and still be seen as socially acceptable. For example, when less pretty people wear especially form-fitting or revealing clothes, they are likely to face social disapproval. They can’t “pull it off.”

Similarly, people who are smarter (or wittier) can talk in conversation about a wider range of topics. If you are not clever or witty, and you bring up a sensitive topic, you are likely to seem awkward and inappropriate, and induce social disapproval. But if you are clever or witty, you can often bring up such subjects in a way that makes people around you laugh and approve.

People who are healthier also have a wider range of socially acceptable activities. People who try to join a group hike or club dance, but who don’t have the energy or coordination to keep up with others, are often frowned upon.

These are three examples of privilege based on familiar kinds of inequality. Not only are these sorts of privilege quite widely accepted, rarely causing much embarrassment or guilt, but we often go out of our way to celebrate and revel in them. In fashion runways, lecture halls, and sporting events we select the most pretty smart healthy people we have, and give them extra attention and approval, thereby increasing social inequality resulting from differences in these features.

An even more dramatic example is inequality based on species. Humans today are gaining huge advantages relative to other species. And most people seem quite okay with celebrating and encouraging these advantages.

When you hear concerns expressed about privilege or inequality, you don’t usually hear these features mentioned. Instead the focus is more often on inequalities tied to income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles. Many people seem to find it quite easy to get worked up over privilege and inequality tied to those features.

Now while I can sorta empathize with such resentment and indignation, they don’t feel much more compelling to me that related feelings about the privileges of pretty, smart, or healthy people. Or even humans relative to other species. So while I could sort get behind efforts to mildly reduce the worst extremes caused by all forms of privilege and inequality (or by total inequality, weighing all things), I can’t get behind efforts to focus much more on some forms relative to others.

I have tried to make sense of why people treat these things differently. For example, people seem more concerned about the kinds of inequality that concerned their distant forager ancestors. People seem more eager to express indignation about kinds if inequality would more support more easy grabbing. And people seem more suspicious of inequality resulting from more opaque larger-scale social processes (like labor markets), rather than from more transparent biological and smaller-scale social processes.

But none of these explanations seem to me good reasons to actually worry much more about these kinds of privilege and inequality. Yes disapproved processes like wars, slavery, and theft have contributed substantially to some cultures or sexual styles becoming dominant in our world. But disapproved processes also contribute substantially to some people becoming prettier, smarter, or healthier in our world. And in neither case am I willing to conclude that disapproved processes are the overwhelming cause of such inequality.

As things are counted in today’s political calculus, this apparently makes me a “conservative,” in that I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar. I see this as like being agnostic about religion. Some people consider a religious agonistic as taking a strong position against religion, and as being almost the same as an atheist. But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

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Hope For A Lumpy Filter

The great filter is the sum total of all of the obstacles that stand in the way of a simple dead planet (or similar sized material) proceeding to give rise to a cosmologically visible civilization. As there are 280 stars in the observable universe, and 260 within a billion light years, a simple dead planet faces at least roughly 60 to 80 factors of two obstacles to birthing a visible civilization within 13 billion years. If there is panspermia, i.e., a spreading of life at some earlier stage, the other obstacles must be even larger by the panspermia life-spreading factor.

We know of a great many possible candidate filters, both in our past and in our future. The total filter could be smooth, i.e. spread out relatively evenly among all of these candidates, or it could be lumpy, i.e., concentrated in only one or a few of these candidates. It turns out that we should hope for the filter to be lumpy.

For example, imagine that there are 15 plausible filter candidates, 10 in our past and 5 in our future. If the filter is maximally smooth, then given 60 total factors of two, each candidate would have four factors of two, leaving twenty in our future, for a net chance for us now of making it through the rest of the filter of only one in a million. On the other hand, if the filter is maximally lumpy, and all concentrated in only one random candidate, then we have a 2/3 chance of facing no filter at all in our future. Thus a lumpy filter gives us a much better chance of making it.

For “try-try” filters, a system can keep trying over and over until it succeeds. If a set of try-try steps must all succeed within the window of life on Earth, then the actual times to complete each step must be drawn from the same distribution, and so take similar times. The time remaining after the last step must also be drawn from a similar distribution.

A year ago I reported on a new study estimating that 1.75 to 3.25 billion years remains for life on Earth. This is a long time, and implies that there can’t be many prior try-try filter steps within the history of life on Earth. Only one or two, and none in the last half billion years. This suggests that the try-try part of the great filter is relatively lumpy, at least for the parts that have and will take place on Earth. Which according to the analysis above is good news.

Of course there can be other kinds of filter steps. For example, perhaps life has to hit on the right sort of genetic code right from the start; if life hits on the wrong code, life using that code will entrench itself too strongly to let the right sort of life take over. These sort of filter steps need not be roughly evenly distributed in time, and so timing data doesn’t say much about how lumpy or uniform are those steps.

It is nice to have some good news. Though I should also remind you of the bad news that anthropic analysis suggests that selection effects make future filters more likely than you would have otherwise thought.

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Great Filter TEDx

This Saturday I’ll speak on the great filter at TEDx Limassol in Cyprus. Though I first wrote about the subject in 1996, this is actually the first time I’ve been invited to speak on it. It only took 19 years. I’ll post links here to slides and video when available.

Added 22Sep: A preliminary version of the video can be found here starting at minute 34.

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Did Industry Cause Nations?

An interesting claim: the nation-state didn’t exist before, and was caused by, the industrial revolution. Oh there were empires before, but most people didn’t identify much with empires, or see empires as much influencing their lives. In contrast people identify with nation-states, which they see as greatly influencing their lives. More:

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. … If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in. …

Agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. … Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. … Ancient empires are coloured on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t. Moreover, people and territories often came under different jurisdictions for different purposes.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. …

The industrial revolution … demanded a different kind of government. … “In 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” … Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing. So in 19th-century Europe, micro-states fused and empires split.

These new nation states were justified not merely as economically efficient, but as the fulfilment of their inhabitants’ national destiny. A succession of historians has nonetheless concluded that it was the states that defined their respective nations, and not the other way around. …

“nation building” … required the creation of an ideology of nationalism that emotionally equated the nation with people’s Dunbar circle of family and friends. That in turn relied heavily on mass communication technologies. … Nationalist feelings … arose after mass-market books standardised vernaculars and created linguistic communities. Newspapers allowed people to learn about events of common concern, creating a large “horizontal” community that was previously impossible. National identity was also deliberately fostered by state-funded mass education. Continue reading "Did Industry Cause Nations?" »

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Tarot Counselors

[Tarot card] readers claim to be able to describe a person’s life, his problems, hopes and fears, his personality and even his future. (more)

I recently watched a demonstration of Tarot card reading. The reader threw out various interpretations of the cards she placed, in terms of the subjects personality and life, and watched the subject carefully for reactions, moving the interpretation closer to options where the subject seemed more engaged. Though the subject was a skeptic, she admitted to finding the experience quite compelling.

Contrast such life readings to school career counselors. Economists have long been puzzled by the lack of student interest in career info. Career counselors usually refer to statistics about the income or graduation rates of broad categories of people given certain types of careers, colleges, or majors. Such advice may be evidence-based but it seems far less compelling to students. It is not connected to salient recent personal experiences of the subjects, or to outcomes in which subjects are very emotionally engaged. The advice is clear but uncertain, in contrast to the certainty and ambiguity of Tarot readings.

It seems obvious to me that many students would be more engaged by more Tarot-like career counseling. It also seems obvious that many parents and other citizens would loudly object, as this would be seen as unscientific and lower the status of this school, at least among elites. Even if the process just took on the appearance of Tarot readings but mainly had the usual career counseling content.

The high status of science seems to push many people to have less compelling and engaging stories of their lives, even if such stories are more accurate.

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