From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?
Tagged with “psychology” (48)
They might find beauty in the same things humans do, you never know.
Alien invasion is a constant theme of Hollywood science fiction, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the new book Enlightenment Now, argues that highly developed civilizations tend toward peace and tolerance, and that advanced aliens are much more likely to be friendly.
“I think it’s not inconceivable that wars between countries will go the way of slave auctions and dueling, just be seen as too ridiculous for any reasonable country to engage in,” Pinker says in Episode 296 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And maybe that’s the natural arc of civilizations, including ones on other planets.”
But wouldn’t alien brains be so different from ours that it would make mutual understanding impossible? On the contrary, since aliens would have been subject to the same evolutionary pressures as us, they would probably possess an appreciation of science—and maybe even beauty—similar to ours.
“It’s conceivable that other intelligences have a sense of beauty that is not wildly different from ours,” Pinker says, “because they too might be expected to be attuned to counter-entropic forces and patterns in nature.”
An example of this is our appreciation of the bright colors and symmetrical configuration of many flowers. “Flowers are designed to attract bugs,” Pinker says, “but they also attract us, and our brains are pretty different from bugs’ brains.”
But there are limits. Vast differences in culture and biology would definitely lead to some significant differences when it comes to art appreciation.
“It may be pushing things to say that little green men from Alpha Centauri would groove to Thelonious Monk,” Pinker says. “I don’t think I’d push it that far.”
Listen to the complete interview with Steven Pinker in Episode 296 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Steven Pinker on progress:
“Nowadays in the most conservative part of the world, namely the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, in many ways they are as liberal, even a bit more liberal, than people of the same age in, say, Sweden or Norway in the early 1960s. At first when I saw that graph I just couldn’t believe it, what are you talking about? People in Libya today are more liberal than people in Sweden in the early sixties? But if you actually think about it, if you go back to people’s attitudes in the sixties, the idea of say gay marriage—you ask a Swede in 1960 what they thought of gay marriage, they’d think you were nuts. Or women’s equality. We tend to underestimate how much the world has changed, particularly when it comes to generation by generation turnover.”
Steven Pinker on AI:
“If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see. Now I don’t think he stays up at night worrying that someone is going to program into a Tesla ‘take me to the airport the quickest way possible,’ and the car is just going to make a beeline across sidewalks and parks, mowing people down and uprooting trees, because that’s the way the Tesla interprets the command ‘take me by the quickest route possible.’ That’s just idiotic, you wouldn’t build a car that way, because that isn’t an example of artificial intelligence — plus he’d get sued and there’d be reputational harms. You’d test the living daylights out of it before you let it on the streets.”
Steven Pinker on science fiction:
“If you take Moral Philosophy 101, or even better you dive into the technical literature in moral philosophy in the philosophy journals, it’s kind of all science fiction. It’s ‘what would happen if …?’ I mean, it’s not very good science fiction, as literature, but it’s putting together an imaginary world and exploring the consequences, to see what you really deep down believe. A simple example is the trolley problem—you know, imagine there’s a hurtling trolley and if it continues on its way it’ll kill five workers on the track who don’t see it coming, but if you flip the switch it’ll be diverted and kill only one person. Should you flip the switch? And all kinds of variations that start to go into the realm of science fiction. But it’s these stretches of the imagination that clarify what you really believe. So science fiction and moral philosophy are often pretty similar.”
Steven Pinker on academia:
“Just yesterday I got a slew of letters after I published an article in the Wall Street Journal just mentioning climate change, and a lot of the readers wrote back and said, ‘Don’t tell me you believe in climate change. That just comes out of universities and everyone knows that there’s just a left-wing echo chamber in the universities.’ Now that’s total and utter nonsense, I know these people—the climate scientists and planetary scientists and geophysicists, and they are not left-wing fanatics—but when you’ve got the university culture developing a reputation for orthodoxy and suppression of controversy, which is true in some parts of the university, it taints the university system as a whole, to the detriment of the entire society.”
After you read this sentence, pause for a moment to think back on advertisements you first heard when you were a child.
Perhaps you recall a favorite jingle or the catchphrase of a cereal mascot. You probably can remember more than just one.
On this week’s radio replay, we look at the shelf life of commercials. According to University of Arizona researcher Merrie Brucks, an ad we watched when we were five years old can influence our buying behavior when we’re fifty.
"Children are vulnerable to messages that are fun and sound good. Because their minds are so open to all of that. They’re open to everything," Merrie says.
We discuss Brucks’ research about cereal commercials in the first portion of the show. Later in the program, we delve into the history of the advertising industry with Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants. In his book, Wu reveals the techniques media companies have developed to hijack our attention.
"You go to your computer and you have the idea you’re going to write just one email. You sit down and suddenly an hour goes by. Maybe two hours. And you don’t know what happened," Tim says.
"This sort of surrender of control over our lives speaks deeply to the challenge of freedom and what it means to be autonomous."
With his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman emerged as one of the most intriguing voices on the complexity of human thought and behavior. He is a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economics for helping to create the field of behavioral economics. He is a self-described “constant worrier.” And it’s fun, helpful, and more than a little unnerving to apply his insights into why we think and act the way we do in this moment of social and political tumult.
We don’t treat all of our beliefs the same.
If you learn that the Great Wall of China isn’t the only man-made object visible from space, and that, in fact, it’s actually very difficult to see the Wall compared to other landmarks, you update your model of reality without much fuss. Some misconceptions we give up readily, replacing them with better information when alerted to our ignorance.
For others constructs though, for your most cherished beliefs about things like climate change or vaccines or Republicans, instead of changing your mind in the face of challenging evidence or compelling counterarguments, you resist. Not only do you fight belief change for some things and not others, but if you successfully deflect such attacks, your challenged beliefs then grow stronger.
The research shows that when a strong-yet-erroneous belief is challenged, yes, you might experience some temporary weakening of your convictions, some softening of your certainty, but most people rebound and not only reassert their original belief at its original strength, but go beyond that and dig in their heels, deepening their resolve over the long run.
Psychologists call this the backfire effect, and this episode is the first of three shows exploring this well-documented and much-studied psychological phenomenon, one that you’ve likely encountered quite a bit lately.
In this episode, we explore its neurological underpinning as two neuroscientists at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute explain how their latest research sheds new light on how the brain reacts when its deepest beliefs are challenged.
By placing subjects in an MRI machine and then asking them to consider counterarguments to their strongly held political beliefs, Jonas Kaplan’s and Sarah Gimbel’s research, conducted along with neuroscientist Sam Harris, revealed that when people were presented with evidence that alerted them to the possibility that their political beliefs might be incorrect, they reacted with the same brain regions that would come online if they were responding to a physical threat.
“The response in the brain that we see is very similar to what would happen if, say, you were walking through the forest and came across a bear,” explains Gimbel in the episode. “Your brain would have this automatic fight-or-flight [response]…and your body prepares to protect itself.”
According to the researchers, some values are apparently so crucial to your identity, that the brain treats a threat to those ideas as if they were a threat to your very existence.
“Remember that the brain’s first and primary job is to protect ourselves,” explains Kaplan in the show. “The brain is basically a big, complicated, sophisticated machine for self-protection, and that extends beyond our physical self, to our psychological self. Once these things become part of our psychological self, I think they are then afforded all the same protections that the brain gives to the body.”
How does the brain take something that is previously neutral and transmutate it into a value that it then protects as if it were flesh and bone? How do neutral, empirical facts about temperature and carbon emissions become politicized? How does an ideological stance on immigration reform become blended with personal identity? We explore those questions and more on this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
Tim Urban knows that procrastination doesn’t make sense, but he’s never been able to shake his habit of waiting until the last minute to get things done. In this hilarious and insightful talk, Urban takes us on a journey through YouTube binges, Wikipedia rabbit holes and bouts of staring out the window — and encourages us to think harder about what we’re really procrastinating on, before we run out of time.
Unconscious biases are created and reinforced by our environments and experiences. Our mind is constantly processing information, oftentimes without our conscious awareness. When we are moving fast or lack all the data, our unconscious biases fill in the gaps, influencing everything from product decisions to our interactions with coworkers. There is a growing body of research – led by scientists at Google – surrounding unconscious bias and how we can prevent it from negatively impacting our decision making.
An exploration of the power of play, from screen-based games like Pokemon Go or Minecraft, to the imaginative worlds of children inventing playgrounds out of everyday life, with special guests with special guests Alison Gopnik, professor at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter, Youngna Park, head of product at Tinybop, Clive Thompson, journalist and author of Smarter Than You Think, and Ian Bogost, philosopher and video game designer.
Original video: https://soundcloud.com/wonderland-podcast/airplanes-zoos-and-infinite-chickens-or-why-do-humans-like-to-play
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We like to think of our own personalities, and those of our family and friends as predictable, constant over time. But what if they aren’t? What if nothing stays constant over a lifetime?
Should we distrust our own ability to reason? Why is debunking conspiracy theories such a risky business? And is David Icke a force for good?
Rob Brotherton is an academic psychologist and theorist of conspiracy theories. His new book is Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. He joins us down the line from New York City.
With Nicola Davis in the studio is Chris French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he heads the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit.
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