Analyzing crazy beliefs

Recently there’s been a renewed attempt in the liberal / scientific blogosphere to figure out what’s up with all the crazy social / political claims that keep erupting — about creationism, Obama, health care, global warming, etc. A new and I think potentially major step forward in this analysis has just been posted by Mike the Mad Biologist, building on two excellent posts by Slactivist (False witnesses, False witnesses 2). This analysis is the first one I’ve seen that makes me feel like I understand most of the craziness we are seeing today (and have seen in some form for many decades), and have at least a hope of figuring out how it will evolve, how we should respond, etc.

The basic point is that the crazy stories (death panels, global warming conspiracies, Obama’s birth, etc. etc.) aren’t really “believed” as we understand that term, at least not by their most vigorous proponents. We use “belief” to mean ideas that are part of an overall picture that we intend to be coherent, to help guide our actions in the world (including in the lab if we are scientists), etc.

Instead, these crazy “beliefs” are really a way of recruiting emotional and social support, declaring membership in a group, etc. So “believers” can’t be persuaded that the “beliefs” are “wrong” just because they are incoherent, lead to obviously wrong conclusions that the “believers” won’t adopt, etc. A strenuous attempt to persuade believers on pragmatic grounds just confirms you are not one of their crowd, can’t be recruited, and are probably one of the enemy. The post “False witnesses” referenced above has a very good discussion of this in some detail. It is worth reading because it is hard to imagine this state of mind (at least I find it hard) until you see it laid out in very specific terms.

I don’t want to say the crazy stories aren’t “really” beliefs — though I’m not sure saying they are crazy beliefs is any nicer. Instead, let’s call the first kind of belief (aiming at coherence and effectiveness) “pragmatic”. We can call the second kind (aiming at recruiting or maintaining support) “participatory” beliefs. (I’m sure there are harmless and even charming participatory beliefs, as well as these crazy ones.) Realistically we all have both kinds, the question is which kind are dominant in any given area, how we react when they are challenged, etc.

Properties of pragmatic vs. participatory beliefs
Slacktivist usefully summarizes his expectations and how he found these extreme participatory beliefs actually work:
I was operating under a set of false assumptions [viewing these as pragmatic beliefs]. Among these:
  1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe [a particular crazy story] really did believe such a thing.
  2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.
  3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.
  4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the [crazy story]:

  1. They didn’t really believe it themselves [using the "pragmatic definition of belief].
  2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
  3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
  4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the [crazy story wasn't true] made them defensive and very, very angry.

Rather than saying the people he was talking to “didn’t really believe it themselves” and intended to misinform others, I’d say that they didn’t care about the pragmatic dimension at all, and so didn’t consider their recruiting to be misinformation. Quite possibly they didn’t expect those they were trying to recruit to interpret the rumor as a pragmatic fact.

This analysis has a lot going for it, much of it discussed rather well in these posts. Obviously participatory disagreements will be more like turf wars than practical discussions. As Mike says in the first post below, “part of the reason [for global warming denialism] is the ever-present desire to punch a hippie in the face” but he thinks that is a different issue. No, it is the same issue — hippies are cultural icons who stand for a different set of participatory beliefs incompatible with the main crazy participatory beliefs. (Obviously for this analysis it doesn’t matter if hippies really do have those beliefs or if hippies even exist.)

The members of the tribes that tell these crazy stories fear they can’t recruit hippies (and in fact fear that hippies are dangerously capable of seducing their own weakly committed members). Punching them in the face is their sincerest form of acknowledgement.

I think this analysis is a good guide to anticipating likely future scenarios, and to judging the effectiveness of possible actions. The worst scenarios are very bad, and while not highly likely I think they are credible. The 20th century leaves us with many examples of participatory “cults” that generated massive death, suffering, and social destruction (military cultures in Europe and Japan, Nazis, Soviet Communists, Maoists, Khymer Rouge, and so forth).

What’s the role of religion?
None of these posts focus on religion per se (though the crazy beliefs they talk about are especially relevant to evangelicals). And certainly some major participatory cults have been very hostile to religion (e.g. the Khymer Rouge, Maoism, etc.) — I suppose viewing it as competition.

However I think just about all organized religion depends on participatory beliefs (some forms of buddhism may be exceptions). Even if a believer is otherwise rational, their religion says it is OK for them to have beliefs that are basically incoherent (or carefully not evaluated for consistency), that aren’t effective in guiding action (or aren’t evaluated in terms of effectiveness), etc. Evangelical religions, furthermore, are defined by recruiting others to their participatory beliefs — that’s what evangelism is.

One of our constraints is that liberals have a participatory belief (or meta-belief) in pragmatic belief. We want to debate at the level of pragmatic beliefs (what is coherent, what will work) and avoid tribalism. Thus liberals can seem weak when they are attacked in social turf wars at the level of participatory belief. I guess this liberal participatory belief is partly historical, in that the liberal coalition (meta-tribe) was largely founded on the rejection of religious wars and the valorization of pragmatic choices relative to participatory beliefs, and partly structural, in that the liberal coalition still depends largely on uniting groups with partially incompatible participatory beliefs (liberal protestants, liberal catholics, liberal jews, liberal non-religious, liberal muslims, etc.).

We don’t anyway want to respond to tribal attacks by organizing tribal counter-attacks — that just tends to pull everything down to the tribal level and would make our problems a lot worse. So as an initial response, the rejection of participatory, tribal responses by the liberal coalition is correct. However we can’t just respond with pragmatic arguments because that doesn’t work against participatory attacks. We have to actually take on the participatory attacks and defeat them — we just have to find ways of doing it that are better than fighting them on their own participatory terms.

Information technology and social change

I’ve recently written up some strategic thoughts for a university (which shall remain nameless) and will post them here, since they develop some themes that I’ve discussed in other posts.

Information technology driving social change

Our information environment is rapidly being transformed by digital systems. Today’s students will work most of their lives in a world transformed by digital information. Their success will depend to a large extent on how well they cope with, understand and anticipate the social and institutional consequences of these technology trends.

The technical trend is that the cost of storing, transmitting and processing digital information has been declining exponentially for decades, and will continue to decline at more or less the same rate for decades. This creates immense pressure for economic and social changes unprecedented in history.

The economic trend is radical factor substitution. Any activity that can take advantage of the declining cost of digital information gets “sucked into” the digital domain. In many cases, the costs become so low that they are effectively zero, like the cost of napkins or a glass of water in a restaurant — there is indeed a cost, but it is below the threshold of individual accounting or control.

While these are simple trends, their social implications are far from simple, because we have no easy way to anticipate what changes are possible or likely. These factor substitutions are radical because they typically involve reinvention of a business, and such drastic changes can only be discovered through innovation and testing in the real world. We have been repeatedly surprised by personal computers, the internet, the world wide web, search engines,Wikipedia, YouTube, etc.

So the overall effect is that large social changes will be driven by simply, easily stated technical trends for at least several more decades. Even though we know the cause, we will be continually surprised by these changes because they arise from technical, business and social innovation that takes advantage of exponentially falling costs.

The ground rules of information goods

Information goods are very different from material goods. Scientific and scholarly communities have always operated largely by the ground rules of information goods, but since material goods were dominant in most areas of society, information goods haven’t gotten major attention from scholars, until recently.

Until the early 1990s, essentially all information goods were embedded in material goods (books, vinyl records, digital tapes, etc.). High-speed digital communication finally split material and information goods completely, and enabled new modes of production. We are finally understanding how the differences in ground rules between material and information goods arise from very different transaction costs, coordination costs, and different levels of asymmetric information on the part of producers and consumers.

One key ground rule is becoming clear: Voluntary contribution and review are essential and often dominant aspects of information good production.

This ground rule has always been important in scholarship. Scholars have always done research, written articles and performed peer review primarily because producing information goods was intrinsic to their vocation. Now, due to the exponential shifts in the cost of information technology, this ground rule is applying to a much wider swath of society.

The successful businesses of the internet era such as Amazon, Google and EBay, depend almost entirely on external content voluntarily contributed and reviewed by their stakeholders — buyers, sellers, creators of indexed web sites, people who create and post video (in the case of YouTube), etc.

The same pattern applies to major new social enterprises enabled by information technology. For example Wikipedia, Linux and Apache all produce information goods (software and content) that are dominant in their very large and important markets, and they produce them through voluntary contributions and review by their stakeholders.