On the Pleasure of Finding Things Out

puzzle_viaLetIdeasCompeteRichard Feynman famously described science, and curiosity broadly, as “the pleasure of finding things out.” There are certainly few things I enjoy more than to turn over ideas and work them through to some new place, even moreso in quick and intelligent company. I consider it a life philosophy to avoid stopping at the obvious conclusions, and instead to see what more may be learned with a few judicious questions. It isn’t science per se, but it has in common a reliance on method. In learning, as in science, one must start with the assumption that one is wrong.

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Infectious Ideas

Online_viaGDC

The qualities that lead to an idea going viral and the qualities that make an idea credible, apparently, do not overlap. Personally, I think this is because many of us have bad ideological immune systems: we accept ideas based on whether they fit what we already agree with, not based on whether they are well-supported by the evidence. That’s what the research seems to show so far, anyway.

The latest wrinkle in the puzzle of how bad ideas spread as easily as good ones comes from a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read the abstract or the full study online, but the shorthand version is that Vicario et al. looked at conspiracy theories and science news to see how they spread on Facebook and to try to learn something about the dynamics of that spread. Like a number of studies in the past, the results showed that both kinds of ideas tend to spread in “homogeneous clusters” of users (essentially echo-chambers), slowly diffusing through a cluster over a period of days or weeks.

What I find interesting about this study is that it also shows that assessment of information is lost along the way; science news and conspiracy theories both rapidly become background information as they diffuse through an echo-chamber. By a few weeks out, users in a group will consider the new information fact and resist attempts to change it.

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Shifting Baselines

On a system scale, human beings are short-lived creatures with even shorter memories, so I suppose I shouldn’t find it so surprising that we usually fail to notice change. In a sense, we actively ignore changes by resetting our baselines as we go, comparing the present to the recent past and ignoring what may have happened before.

“Baseline creep” refers to slow changes, even in our individual lives, that are generally invisible. Visit family you haven’t seen in years and someone may comment “how much you’ve changed,” even if, from your perspective, nothing much has. Your baseline changes as you grow and age, but they are still comparing you to who you were a few years before.

Baseline creep also affects our social memory, especially from generation to generation. Things that fall out of our immediate experience also often fall out of our awareness. Few human beings now alive can recall when flocks of millions of passenger pigeons darkened the sky for hours at a stretch, or when the giant American Chestnut was the most common forest tree east of the Mississippi. Few of us who do not remember have any idea that these things were true. Their absence is human-caused and dramatic, but we scarcely notice.

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The Difficulty of Offering Solutions

bandaids_viaLenaMany writers take the time to carefully delineate some problem or other in society, spending huge chunks of books, papers, or theses to do so.  Certainly the description of a problem is important, and a critical first step in understanding and addressing any issue. And I do this myself—in many ways, writing is a way to wrestle with ideas and refine them.

Yet once a problem is understood, I become hungry for more than platitudes. Many authors have held my full attention as they explained the complexities of a major problem, but then have ended these otherwise compelling pieces of writing with trite clichés. Use compact fluorescents, recycle, buy sustainably, vote—as if those things alone, or even all of them together, could be enough.

I give them credit for the effort, but I wonder if they, and I, miss the mark. Even though I want elegant single solutions, I am never sure they really exist. Social problems are complex structures with long feedbacks and a diversity of inputs and outputs. Societies are ponderous entities that lag far behind their most progressive members. So I think no individual inner journey, no matter how compelling, will change a society. No amount of careful shopping will make change; even if a majority of people changed their shopping habits, they would still be a minor force compared to the structural forces controlling our economic system. And no amount of careful voting will solve big problems; even if problems like climate change could wait for the next election, or the one after that, top-down efforts can change only a small part of any social structure.

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The Pendulum of Discourse

pendulum_viaSylvarI find boundaries deeply entrancing. The twilight steps between darkness and light, the long ridges between peak and swale, the blurry lines between solid ideas: no matter the subject, I am drawn to the edges. The gradients from one thing to the next often tell me more than the things themselves.

I regularly indulge my affinity for boundaries through exploring caves or hiking mountains, but I am equally interested in exploring the boundaries of knowledge. We spend so much of our discourse on a pendulum between certainties, swinging on a distant focal point in search of equilibrium. The central node of an idea holds some sway, but for me, it is only an anchor. It is a beacon for measurement, a view from which to survey the world, but not a place to stay. The interesting things happen farther out, in the wilderness between here and there.

Some seem to think the purpose of discourse is to draw our collective knowledge into orbit around a core, ideally rejecting alternatives as small-minded, irrelevant, or wrong. I think we ignore the oscillation when we need it most, arguing for the extremes when we really need equilibrium. By arguing for the extremes and ignoring the long fuzzy boundary between, each position starts to define the middle as part of some other extreme. We become hyper-focused on the longest amplitude of the pendulum’s every swing, but in so doing we lose awareness of the swing itself.

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The Longest Levers

It’s hard to figure out the best ways to effect change. There is no shortage of causes, and no shortage of causes I agree with, but on closer inspection, the strategic elements of many of those causes are lacking. Not everyone needs a clear strategy to motivate them, but, for me, the absence of strategy looks too much like the absence of effectiveness.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about leverage, and where it makes sense to focus my limited time. I haven’t found the best places, but, through lots of discussion, I have ended up with a useful way to think about it:

SocietyOverlap1

The basic form is just the society I want is juxtaposed with the society I have. There are points of overlap: things that are functional in both societies that I should happily support. There are also points of divergence: things that do not exist yet, but which I would like, and things that do exist now but which directly conflict with the society I want. Finally, there are two different classes of idea: core issues and structures, and emergent effects.

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Replacing Old Ideas

Frame_viaRebeccaSiegelThere is a free-floating sense in some activist communities that the most powerful and compelling thing one can do is to stop something. Certainly it has emotional impact and allays a creeping sense of powerlessness. And we prove the case, or perhaps only justify it, with iconic images of marches and rallies and a man standing in front of a line of tanks. Compelling though it is, I think the ideas of stopping things appeals a bit too rashly to emotion. It encourages us to measure change by its impact on ourselves rather than its impact on others. So, important work though it be, I think merely stopping things is too narrow a focus.

When I realized that ideas, even those that are bizarre and divorced from evidence, have functional value, it changed my conception of how those ideas fit into the bigger picture. If ideas meet structural needs for individuals, groups, and societies, simply attacking those ideas will not do. If by some chance you succeed against in defeating a bad idea, there remains a void to be filled in the social and ideological structure.

Unsurprisingly, people do not like it when you take away something they were using and offer nothing in return. Often the people using that structure will just defend the idea, regardless of its value, to maintain the whole. Quite probably they’ll resent you. And maybe they’ll find an idea that’s even worse and grab ahold of it to fill the empty slot.

Thus, I think it is not enough to understand the failures of an idea—we must also understand it’s uses and value for those who hold it, and make sure whatever idea we offer in replacement does those things as well or better.

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Memories of Change

sunset_viaIanBarbourThe echo-chambers are echoing loudly of late. Crisis and fear always seem to pick off the scabs of history. In our media and our minds, a slurry of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and islamophobic ideas ooze back to the surface and spill out into the world around us.

I want to write people off when they say such things, and certainly it becomes harder to believe that people can change. I want to write them off because enemies are simple. But people are complicated; we can change, and we do. We just tend to forget that we have, and thus to judge that other people can’t. Simplifying ourselves encourages us to simplify others, reducing them slowly and surely to enemies.

I think a part of the way forward is to look back: to remember our own changes. To talk about them. To wear changing our minds as a badge of honor rather than shame.

So.

I used to be anti-abortion.

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