Tag Archives: complexity

The Appeal Of Extremism

There was a meme going around on Facebook a couple of weeks back to the effect that conspiracy theories appeal especially to people who don’t understand how the government works. (It was phrased in a more pithy manner, but that was the gist.)

That insight was consistent with research on people attracted to various kinds of fundamentalism: religious, political or even nutritional. In a complicated world, there is something very attractive–even restful–about a world cleanly divided into spheres of black and white. This is good, that is bad. This is what God (or nature) demands, and that will send you down the road to hell (or kill you before your time).

No agonizing involved. Just respect the bright line–and try to get the government make your neighbors do likewise.

The attraction of those bright lines– good versus bad, right versus wrong, no shades of gray–goes a long way toward explaining the political figures who go from one extreme to the other. Those of us of a “certain age” still remember the members of the so-called intelligencia who were enamored of communism, then–after being “mugged by reality”–became just as devotedly and rigidly rightwing. These are folks who desperately need the clarity that comes with a very oversimplified view of reality.

The Guardian recently reported on a study confirming the nature of that appeal. It found that people who embrace extremist attitudes tend to perform poorly on complex mental tasks.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge sought to evaluate whether cognitive disposition – differences in how information is perceived and processed – sculpt ideological world-views such as political, nationalistic and dogmatic beliefs, beyond the impact of traditional demographic factors like age, race and gender.

According to the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers found that ideological attitudes “mirrored cognitive decision-making.”

A key finding was that people with extremist attitudes tended to think about the world in black and white terms, and struggled with complex tasks that required intricate mental steps, said lead author Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology.

“Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world,” she said.

The researchers found that participants in the study who were prone to dogmatism – which they defined as “stuck in their ways and relatively resistant to credible evidence” actually had problems with processing evidence even at a perceptual level.

For most people, through most of human history, life was comparatively simple. Not easy, certainly, but far less complicated than it can be in the environment we now inhabit. Constant changes in technology challenge us. Globalization and vastly improved methods of communication confront homogeneous communities with the radical diversity of the earth’s population. The Internet constantly highlights the vastness of human knowledge–and reminds each of us that our individual ability to understand the world is pretty limited.

And of course, we are constantly reminded of the threats we face: climate change, pollution, terrorism (foreign and domestic), assaults on democratic governance, evidence of multiple institutions that aren’t functioning properly…It’s all pretty daunting, and making sense of the connections and contradictions is more daunting still, even for people emotionally and intellectually able to deal with the degree of ambiguity and complexity involved.

That said, we also need to recognize that the inability to deal with complexity isn’t some sort of IQ test–it appears to be the result of an interplay between personality and intellect. We can’t simply shrug and attribute acceptance of QAnon and the like to stupidity, or substandard education. We desperately need to understand the nature of this inability to accept and process complexity–the reasons for some people’s resistance to life’s inescapable ambiguities.

We especially need to figure out how to address the seductive appeal of dangerous simplicities–including the siren calls of conspiracy theories.

 

 

 

“It Depends”–But Sometimes It Doesn’t

I don’t know who Susan Hennessey is, but I think we are probably what used to be known as “kindred spirits.” The reason I came to that conclusion was the following paragraph from her post at Lawfare:

 “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.”

For years, I have included some form of the following statement in my courses’ introductory lectures: You will find, during the semester, that I can be an opinionated professor. Your grade in this course absolutely does not depend upon agreeing with me. My goal is not to inculcate policy positions.  I will, however, consider that I have been a success as an instructor if, after you have taken this course, you use two phrases more frequently than you previously did. Those phrases are “It depends” and “It’s more complicated than that.” If you are better able to recognize contingency and complexity after being in this class, I will have done what I set out to do.

I have often criticized Americans’  knee-jerk, “bipolar” approach to issues, the tendency to see every debate in shades of black and white, good versus evil. We live in a world that is largely gray, with complicated problems that don’t lend themselves to solutions by way of  bumper-sticker slogans and rigid ideological mantras.

I continue to understand arguments about policy and governance that way–most of the issues we debate are what lawyers call “fact-sensitive,” dependent upon context, factual distinctions, the art of the possible. But it is getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that not every argument is nuanced, or conducted in good faith, and not every party to our ongoing national debates is honorable.

Not every conflict is between persons of good will who simply see things differently.

There really are bad people. Not people who are simply misguided, not people who just don’t understand the issue, not people who are “coming from a different place.” People who are deeply flawed, and utterly devoid of the qualities thought essential to membership in a civilized and humane society.

The challenge is to tell the difference between the people who simply see things differently and the people who are irredeemably bad. At this point–at least with respect to the gangsters in Washington–I think we have enough evidence to make a determination.

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part II)

One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).

This complexity requires informed and thoughtful policymaking, an understanding of how the various aspects of our shared environment interact, if we are to avoid unintended and very harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, we have elected a President and numerous lawmakers who are not up to the task, to put it as delicately as possible. They are supported by voters who dismiss people who do have expertise, people who actually know things, as “elitist.”

A couple of examples: a while back, the New York Times ran an article about automation, addressing a number of likely consequences of new AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies:

A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

I have posted previously about the potential consequences of AI and automation generally for job creation. The number of jobs lost to automation already dwarfs those lost to outsourcing and trade–and yet, activists on both the Right and Left continue to focus only on trade policy.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

If Donald Trump has ever addressed this issue, or suggested that he is even aware of it, it has escaped my notice.

Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was written. What Hofstadter and others who have addressed this particular element of American culture failed to foresee, however, was a time in which the federal government (together with a good number of state governments–Texas comes immediately to mind) would be controlled by people who neither understand the world they live in nor know what they don’t know.

Science Magazine  recently reported on the EPA’s dismissal of 38 science advisors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

Unlike most of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, he is proving effective in his efforts to destroy the EPA–not just by denying the reality of climate change science, but by rolling back regulations that protect air and water quality. He appears to be operating on a theory common to this administration: if a reality is uncongenial, ignore it or deny its existence. If evidence contradicts your worldview, dismiss it.

Yesterday, in a reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I observed that science and reality are true whether or not you believe them.

The worst thing about giving simple and/or corrupt people the power to run a government they do not understand is that complicated realities continue to be realities, and the longer we fail to engage those realities, the worse the consequences.

Can We Talk About Trade? Probably Not.

When I teach policy analysis, certain barriers to sound analysis tend to recur. At least three of those barriers are pertinent to the current debate about America’s trade policies.

  • Americans tend to be inappropriately “bipolar.” Too many partisans, Left and Right, approach complex policy issues with a “bright line” ideology–doing X is either good or bad. Period. Their world is divided between good guys and “evil-doers,” (to use Bush the Second’s terminology) and there is no middle ground.
  • Although there are certainly some policies that are simply wrong, in most cases, the proper approach to analysis is to ask “how,” not “whether.” That’s because, in most cases, the devil really is in the details; otherwise good policies can fail because they are not properly developed or implemented, and otherwise problematic approaches can be rescued by careful development and thoughtful application.
  • In today’s America, increasing numbers of policy domains are complicated and highly technical. Even well-informed citizens are unable to make independent judgments about the best approach to such matters–examples include telecommunications, arms control, tax policies and multiple other areas. We are increasingly dependent upon experts in the field to assess proposed laws and regulations–and we are increasingly suspicious of the bona fides of those experts.

These challenges to sound policy analysis are front and center in the arguments about trade agreements like the TPP.

On the Left, we have a number of activists who believe that trade agreements inevitably cost American jobs, no matter what their content. This is demonstrably false. Outsourcing and poorly drafted agreements certainly undermine both domestic employment and compensation, but trade also generates jobs and economic growth. According to the U.S.Department of Commerce, in 2008 the United States exported nearly $1.7 trillion in goods and services, exports that supported more than 10 million full- and part-time jobs and accounted for 12.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). (If I find more recent data, I’ll update this post.)

On the Right, we have proponents who support any and all “free trade” proposals, no matter whether the agreements safeguard workers or the environment, and no matter how unbalanced the agreement, because “all trade is good.”

I haven’t followed all of the pronouncements, pro and con, about TPP, but in those I have heard, not one person on either side has identified provisions of that proposed agreement with which he or she agreed or disagreed. It was all or nothing–good or bad.

International trade is complicated, and the negative consequences that partisans cite aren’t necessarily the result of trade itself: the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think-tank, attributes a significant amount of manufacturing job loss to currency manipulation. EPI says that “Global currency manipulation is one of the most important causes of growing U.S. trade deficits, and of unemployment and slow economic growth in the United States and Europe.”

Like technology, trade both displaces workers and creates new kinds of employment.

My point is not to weigh in on the merits of the TPP. Like most Americans, I simply do not know enough–about the terms of the proposed agreement, about the likely cost-benefit ratio, about the context within which the agreement would be implemented–to come to a reasoned conclusion. Like most Americans, I must rely upon the evaluations of people whose expertise and knowledge I trust.

Which brings me to what I have come to identify as one of the most serious problems America faces: a public in which skepticism, cynicism, and a pervasive lack of trust is rampant. We don’t trust the media (or more accurately, we trust only the media sources that confirm our pre-existing biases), we don’t trust government (the result of thirty-plus years of anti-government rhetoric), we don’t trust members of that “other” political party, and increasingly, we don’t trust each other. We sure as hell don’t trust the experts–those elitists!

It’s hard to make policy in that sort of environment.

The Challenges of Complexity

Last night, I attended a dinner in Lafayette. A delightful man at my table turned out to be a retired environmental engineer, and during the conversation, the subject of fracking came up.

I’ve had a good deal of trepidation about the practice, so I was surprised when he said that–done with a reasonable level of care–it doesn’t pose a threat to environmental safety. He also noted that the abundance, and relatively low cost, of natural gas could both lessen our dependence on foreign oil and give the economy a needed boost.

On the way home, I thought about our conversation, and realized that I had absolutely no way to evaluate the accuracy of his observations, or to weigh them against the arguments of those who oppose fracking. I don’t know enough.

The problem is, in so many areas of our communal life, we are all in the position of not knowing enough to make sound, evidence-based decisions. In an increasingly complex world, a world in which none of us can possibly have the knowledge needed to make independent decisions, we have no alternative but to place our trust in experts.

I’ve written a lot about the “trust deficit” in America, and its various causes. This dinner-table conversation focused me on one of the most troubling results of that deficit.

How do we make sound policy decisions when so many of the issues we face require considerable expertise, but we don’t know who has that expertise, who is able to render an unbiased and informed opinion, and who is “in the pocket” of an interest group or otherwise untrustworthy?

What was the old Chinese curse? “May you live in interesting times.”

We are.