The Casual Blog

Tag: mass delusions

Guilty pleasures, my new grand piano, and understanding mass delusions

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

Daffodils at Fletcher Park, March 4, 2017

It’s been pleasantly mild in Raleigh this week, bringing out the early spring flowers, though it got colder this weekend.  I’ve been in good spirits, which is hard to explain.    With so many big things to worry about, I’ve felt a little guilty about this happiness.   But what can you do?

On Friday I had a successful spinning class with Matt at Flywheel. Despite a couple of weeks off, I finished with the first place score, with 320 points.  Almost everyone (or everyone)  in the class was considerably younger than me.   It’s invigorating to try to keep up with younger people, and especially fun to go faster than them!

Gabe and I had lunch this week at the Remedy Diner, and talked about the possibility of his becoming a partner in a new print-jobbing and graphic design firm.  He’s already doing web site design and related print design work, and the new business could be a good platform.  I’m excited for him, and enjoyed kicking around some of the practical aspects, like finding clients, office space, legal services, accounting, and insurance.

My new Fazioli F228

My new Fazioli F228

This week I figured out how to work forScore, an app for reading piano music on my tablet device.  There’s a massive amount of great music in the public domain and available for free on sites like IMSLP.org, but it’s cumbersome to work with unbound paper copies.  Just as my tablet has become my primary tool for reading books, it might become that for music.  Another plus is solving the problem of page turning.  In prior generations, pianists needed two hands to play the instrument and a third hand to turn pages, but I’m getting a little wireless foot pedal that should do the job.

I’m in love with my new grand piano, a Fazioli F228. The sound is amazing!  It is truly a joy to play.  It’s a 2003 instrument that I acquired from a businessman in Greenwich, Connecticut, who’d got it for his young son to learn on.  Since then, it’s been lovingly tended to by an experienced technician, but barely used.  It will certainly be used by me.  I’ve been delving into my favorite music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, and discovering beautiful new prospects.  I’m selling my Steinway A, a 2004 instrument with a really lovely tone, if you know anyone who might be interested.

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Being of such good cheer, I’d planned to abstain from political discussions this week.  But I can’t resist sharing links to a couple of articles with very intriguing ideas about a big question:  are we losing our grip on reality?  The White House’s attacks on the media, the justice system, scientific consensus, and other institutions initially seemed to me so bizarre and ridiculous that I assumed no one would take them seriously.  But some people are.

Alexander George in the NY Times compared the situation to a famous forger of Vermeer’s work who succeeded by temporarily changing, through his own fake paintings, the understanding of what qualified as a Vermeer.  George points up that we judge the validity of new information based on our current knowledge base, including the concepts we’ve developed as to what sources are reliable.  If someone were to convince us that we could no longer trust scientists or journalists, our existing knowledge base would be undermined.  Rationality would be seriously impaired, as would political organization and action.  Query, is this the Bannon plan?

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Also in the sad, failing, fake news Times, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman wrote a piece entitled Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, which centers on an idea that is both simple and profound.    The answer, they say, is not lack of intelligence.  Fernbach and Sloman point out that human knowledge is essentially collective — dependent on knowledge of other humans.  The things we think we know are for the most part actually things we’re confident somebody else knows.   While this system of collective intelligence allows for the large and long collaborations necessary for the greatest human achievements, it also accounts for our susceptibility to mass delusions.  

For better and for worse, we largely rely on our communities for knowledge, and our tools for detecting when our communities go awry are not so good.  As others have noted, we have a tendency to believe new information that fits with whatever we (and our community) already believe and ignore and suppress everything else, which has an error magnification effect.  Social media serves for many as news fast food that compounds the echo chamber problem.

Thus it turns out to be easy for groups to come to strong agreement in support of ideas overwhelmingly at odds with the weight of the evidence.  QED:  climate change is a hoax, immigrants are threatening us with terrorism, our military is too weak, etc.

On a cheerier note, speaking of intelligence, there was a report this week of experiments showing that insects have a lot more mental capacity than previously thought.  They aren’t just automatons operating on pure instinct, but  can learn and solve problems.  Scientists at the Queen Mary University in London taught bumblebees to roll a little ball across a platform in exchange for a reward.  Amazing!  

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Is delusional thinking driving us once again to war in the Middle East? And reading Eating Animals.

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I used to think that mass delusions were historically rare and unlikely to recur, but I’m coming to think they’re common and unlikely to ever cease. We seem to have largely gotten over ideas like witches’ spells are dangerous and stars determine our fates, but we’re constantly exposed to and threatened by ideas that are just as loony.

It would be interesting to work out a taxonomy of mass delusions, from those that are usually harmless to those that may cause death. The classification system could also identify the strength of the delusion, from ones, like fear of black cats, that are persistent but not really serious, to those that are sometimes subject to reconsideration, to those whose adherents will kill to establish them as eternal truths.

Yesterday I learned that the President has ordered more troops into Iraq to fight ISIS. This is clearly premised on the view that this crazy outfit is bent on the destruction of our way of life, and will in due course attack us. There is, to be sure, some support for this view in their rhetoric and brutality, but it may be totally wrong. Remember, they haven’t attacked us, and it is entirely possible that their strategy is to provoke us to fight them so as to inspire their supporters. And if they aren’t really a threat to us, the idea that we must wipe them out to survive should be classed among the most pernicious of delusions – ones that seems so reasonable as to be beyond question, and that lead inexorably to violence and mass death.
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Tom Friedman wrote an unusually thoughtful column a week or so back comparing ISIS and North Vietnam. He reminded me that in the 1960s, US leaders, and presumably a majority of the electorate, were convinced that the Communists in North Vietnam were primarily motivated by an anti-capitalist ideology and a willingness to fight along with other Communists for world domination. Thus we pursued a war that led to the deaths of some 58 thousand of our soldiers and more than a million Vietnamese. We now know, or at least are starting to understand, that the Vietnamese were primarily driven by nationalist concerns. They weren’t a domino.

Friedman suggests that the success of ISIS may similarly be attributable less to religious or political ideology than to nationalist concerns and anger at Sunni oppression by Shiites. There clearly are some jihadists with dreams of regional, if not world, domination, but their numbers are probably much smaller than those who back them out of more pragmatic and local concerns. In short, this looks more like a civil war with mainly regional implications, not an existential threat to the western way of life. If this is correct, there is no way the US can wipe out this enemy, and it would be a horrific folly to try.
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While I’m talking about uncomfortable subjects, I’ll mention I just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. The book is part factual reportage, part memoir, and examines what factory farming means to the animal victims and to human society. I knew something about this subject beforehand, but learned a lot from the book. It’s written in an easy-going, thoughtful, personal voice, but includes some very disturbing subject matter, particularly the accounts of routine corporatized animal torture and abuse.

Here are some sample facts: “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” “More than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America.” “We know, at least, that [not eating animals] will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history.”

Here is a sample aspirational thought: “What kind of world would we create if three times a day we activated our compassion and reason as we sat down to eat, if we had the moral imagination and the pragmatic will to change our most fundamental act of consumption?”