Understanding Uncertainty

by James Wallace Harris, 5/1/21

Most people are binary in their thinking. They don’t like juggling shades of gray. We want to know yes or no, it is, or it isn’t, is it good or bad, friend or foe, us versus them, and so on. For several decades now science has been under attack because it confuses people with complicated and even contradictory results.

Reality is not simple. It contains infinite variables working through infinite combinations. Science is about statistics. It looks for patterns, making hunches to test. And the results are never absolute. Last night I came across a film that visually illustrates this better than anything I’ve seen before.

This video is well worth 25 minutes it takes to watch. Actually, it’s worth watching over and over again. Don’t be put off because the film uses climate change as a teaching example if you’re burned out on the topic. Just watch it for how science works.

Digesting the daily news has become a survivalist skill. That skill should be combined with reading, writing, and arithmetic as part of every K-12 curriculum. Even though we’ve all had a lifetime of practice consuming new information, most of us would fail this subject, even the most studious would only be getting Ds and Cs. I’m no exception, failing most tests.

It’s not a matter of knowing the right answers, but learning to live with uncertainty. It’s developing an intuition for data, both numerical and narrative. We need to consume our daily information like Sherlock Holmes, always looking for clues. In the old days, teachers would talk about developing a rule of thumb for rough guessing. Other people talk about bullshit detectors. The trouble is humans aren’t rational, but rationalizing creatures. We constantly fool ourselves with false assumptions. We feel we’re being logical, and sometimes we are, but all too often we’ve started our chain of logic after making a bad initial assumption. If you’ve ever played the game MasterMind, you’ll understand this basic trait.

Learning to think clearly is unnatural for human beings because we tend to make up our minds quickly and stick to our decisions. We decide in childhood, when we’re uneducated, on many beliefs we choose to defend for the rest of our lives. Science is all about constantly reevaluating data, and that goes against common human habits. Humans aren’t Vulcans, but we all need to think like Mr. Spock, but that requires constant effort, constant vigilance. Always learning new insights feels like we’re always swimming against the current, when the urge is to relax and to drift with the current. That’s as natural as entropy. But understanding reality is anti-entropic, it is swimming against the current.

JWH

Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

31 Lessons to Save the World

James Wallace Harris, 3/4/21

Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) by Yuval Noah Harari and Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World (2020) by Fareed Zakaria made it all too obvious that everyone needs to get to work together to save the world. But will we? Harari and Zakaria are two tiptop brains who have been thinking mighty hard on what needs to be done and have come up with a total of 31 useful insights. However, while reading these books I kept wondering if humanity will do what it takes to save itself.

Of course, both books carefully assess the major governments around the world and generalize on the psychological abilities of their citizens. Harari focuses more on people, while Zakaria deals more with governments. Harari is an international philosopher from Israel, while Zakaria is a savvy political commentator on CNN. Harari’s lessons focus on how people think and his main advice advocates freeing oneself from all the bullshit that confuse our thinking. Because our modern world lays a lot of crap on us, Harari offers a great number of lessons to free ourselves. Zakaria asks us to focus on what is good government and how can we build them. Since the United States has been sinking deeper and deeper into bad governmental practices for decades Zakaria suggests a lot of changes too.

Can individuals and humanity as a whole make all the needed transformations before our problems reach a perfect storm of self-destruction? One of the lessons Harari covers is how people live by the stories they tell themselves. He makes a case that people generally don’t think for themselves, but buy into group thinking. Psychologically, it’s beneficial and easier to accept a story from a group than invent your own. That’s why people embrace religion, nationalism, and political parties – they give meaning to their lives, a satisfying sense of purpose and understanding, and a story to embrace and share.

At first, you’d think Yuval Noah Harari is a liberal, but as he recounts the history of various philosophies, dismissing each, he comes to liberalism and says its dead too, and keeps on going. That made me question my own stories I got from hanging with the liberals. It made me ask: What story do I live by? Well, here’s my story abbreviated as much as possible:

I don't use the word universe to mean everything anymore after science started speculating about multiverses. I use the word reality. From all my studying of science there appears to be no limits to be discovered from exploring larger and larger realms, or by delving into smaller and smaller pieces. Evidently reality is infinite in all directions in both time, space, and any other possible dimension or existence. Earth is an insignificant portion of reality. But in the domain of human life, this planet is all that matters because it sustains our existence. I am an accidental byproduct of reality churning through all the infinities of infinite possibilities. I am a bubble of consciousness that has a beginning and end. I coexist on a planet with other similar consciousnesses, as well as a spectrum of other living beings with their own versions consciousness. Life on planet Earth has the potential to exist here for billions of years, but it appears our species is about to destroy its current level of civilization, if not commit species suicide, or even wipe out all life. We can all continue to live pursuing our own stories ignoring their cumulative effect on the planet, or we can collectively decide to protect the planet.

You can see why these books appeal to me.

To cooperate means everyone working from the same pages. I’m not sure that’s possible, but these two books describe what some of those pages should look like. As long as we selfishly pursue the individual stories we currently live by, cooperation can not happen.

I cannot bet we’ll cooperate because the odds are so impossible. But I am quite confident that we’re quickly approaching an endpoint to our current civilization. All the odds are just too high for that. If you haven’t read Collapsed by Jared Diamond, you might consider doing so. It’s about all the civilizations before our current ones, they all failed. But just pay attention to all the trends you encounter. They all seem to be aiming at a near future omega endpoint bullseye.

To solve our problems requires everyone becoming a global citizen. We must all put the security of the Earth before our own goals. That involves learning a new story. But as Harari points out, most people don’t switch stories once they’ve found one that gives their life meaning, even if it has no connection to reality whatsoever.

We live in a era where people are embracing nationalism over globalism. This is Zakaria’s territory. Not only must individuals must change, but nations need to change too. Zakaria covers how some nations are succeeding and others are not.

In the story I live by as described above, I know my place and limitations. I’m a single consciousness that will endure for a few more years. Basically, I putter about in my tiny portion of this planet, pursuing things that interest me. I enjoy what I can, and try to limit my suffering as much as possible. I am quite thankful for having this experience of existing in reality. Maybe it is too much to hope that we could collectively control our environment and the fate of our species. Reality is all about creation and destruction, roiling through all the Yin-Yang possibilities. Maybe in some locations in reality the inhabitants do work together to shape their existence, and theoretically this could be such a location, but I doubt it.

I told my friend Linda the other day, to save the world will require everyone reading a certain number of books to understand what needs to be done. I’m not sure how many books would be required, but I’m pretty sure they won’t get the readers needed. That’s why my most popular essay is “50 Reasons Why The Human Race Is Too Stupid To Survive,” getting tens of thousands of hits. And most of the people who leave comments are quite cynical about our odds too. I really need to update that essay with current examples, but I could call this essay reason #51.

JWH

Are You Sure You Want to Reject Science?

by James Wallace Harris

Trigger Warning: Do Not Read While Flying

I assume we live in an objective reality understandable by the scientific method. There is a growing movement to reject science. Does that mean those people believe reality is explainable by something other than science? Or do science deniers assume reality is subjective and mutable by our thoughts, desires, and fears? What happens if science doesn’t explain an objective reality? What happens if we really do live in a reality where mind over matter rules?

I know science can produce inconvenient results, but do you really want to reject it? I can understand why the faithful rejects science, science invalidates their theories about life after death. I can also sympathize with business people who fear following scientific research means losing money. But still, do you really want to reject science? Hasn’t science created more wealth than faith?

What happens to our reality when everyone believes whatever they want?

First off, if you have doubts about science don’t get on an airplane. For hundreds of thousand of years Homo sapiens did not fly. Then we discovered science and took to the skies. If we were wrong about science, maybe flying really doesn’t work. If reality works by believing and we stop believing, what happens? If enough people stop believing in science will planes start falling from the skies?

Religion is based on faith. That means believing in believing is how things work. Do you really want to believe that? What if you’re lying in bed at night and imagine a monster is going to grab you and wad you into a bloody ball? Doesn’t rational thinking protect you from such dangers?

Whenever I’ve stood next to a jetliner I’ve marveled at its immense size and weight. It boggles my mind that science can explain how lift works, especially with something so massive. Yet, I put my faith in science even when it’s hard to believe. Science succeeds in so many millions of ways that I can’t believe it could be wrong even when I can’t understand.

What if the faithful are right, and it’s faith that makes things happen. If we lose faith in science, will that mean jets, televisions, computers, telephones, medicines, cars, and so on will stop working? Do you want to return to horses and plows? Do you want to bring back ghosts, demons, angels, pixies, devils, and all those other beings that science disproved? Do you want the world be be flat and just a few thousand years old?

What if mind over matter is true? What if technology works because we live in an age where Faith in Science works? Do you really want to stop believing in science and create a new age? I don’t believe it, but if you deny science, aren’t you believing that?

Back in the 1970s I got into a lot of New Age ideas. The foundation of those beliefs was mind over matter. Religions are based on the same principle. God created the world with the Word. If you take that to its logical conclusion, reality could be anything we imagined. That’s fine as long as you can maintain happy thoughts, but if your minds veers into darker ideas, it can get pretty damn scary. Think about the next time you’re 40,000 feet in the air. Don’t you actually prefer embracing cause and effect over the power of thoughts?

I decided way back then that I didn’t want to live in a reality ruled by mental power. I wanted reality to be objective rather than subjective. Of course, maybe I live in an objective reality because my mind subjectively built it that way, but I prefer not to even believe that. I want planes to fly because of the laws of nature, and not because of our shared beliefs.

Our species has a history of inventing explanations for reality. The only cognitive tool we’ve ever discovered that works in a consistent fashion is science. Magic, faith, religion, philosophy, gossip, conspiracy theories – all fail to produce consistent results – no matter how much we wish they could. Science has transformed our relationship with reality. Science isn’t easy to understand because reality is complex and thus hard to predict. Often the number of variables involve make it difficult for the statistical nature of science to be definite. But just look how we’ve improved weather prediction over the last several decades. Just consider how many diseases we’ve conquered. Just contemplate the marvels of technology. We can fly. Doesn’t the continual success of science validate it?

Just because science implies something you don’t want doesn’t mean disbelieving will alter the results. You don’t want to believe that – especially if you’re flying.

For those who believe in God, what if science is the way God works? In all religious texts, God or gods succeed because of magical abilities their believers can’t fathom. Faith is belief in the power of that magic. What if the belief in magic is wrong? What if reality isn’t ruled by magic, but science? People who reject science are people who believe in magical thinking.

The next time you’re flying in a jetliner, think about magical thinking. Does magic make it fly, or science.

But, like I said, decide before you get on the plane. Don’t think about it in flight – what if you decide wrong?

JWH

Coronavirus v. Flu

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Warning: The calculation of percentages was done by me and could be wrong. The other figures come from the CDC and WHO.

My friend Anne asked me to give her some statistics on the coronavirus that would help her understand it in relation to the flu. I have taken my numbers from the CDC but did my own percentage calculations. Please let me know if my math is wrong. Here is my simplified table of their statistics for the annual flu seasons in the United States. The percentage of people dying is in relation to those getting sick.

Annual flu statistics

I found the statistics for the coronavirus from the World Health Organization. As of February 17, 2020, there have been 71,429 confirmed cases with 1,772 deaths, which is the death rate of 2.48%. (Someone, check my calculations, that seems very high.) It would mean if the 2017-2018 flu season that infected 45,000,000 people had been the coronavirus, 1,116,000 people would have died, as compared to the 61,000 from regular influenza.

However, people don’t have any natural immunity to the coronavirus, and as of yet, there have been no vaccines created. If it hit America a good deal more than 45,000,000 might become infected. Supposedly 675,000 Americans died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed 20-50 million people worldwide. But then the global population was only 1.8 billion as opposed to our 7, which suggests the coronavirus could be much less deadly than the Spanish flu. On the other hand, medical science wasn’t as advanced in 1918.

Let’s hope the Chinese can control the coronavirus. This could be very bad.

JWH