Sunday, 5 August 2018

Creating Routines for Self Improvement - Part 4 from Thinking in Bets



Extracts from Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

In 2004 Phil Ivey destroyed a start studded table in a poker tournament. After his win, during dinner, Ivey deconstructed every potential playing error he thought he might have made on the way to victory, asking others’ for their opinion about each strategic decision. A more run of the mill player might have spent the time talking about how great they played, relishing the victory. Not Ivey. For him, the opportunity to learn from his mistakes was much more important than treating the dinner as a self-satisfying celebration.

Ivey, clearly has different habits than most players and most people in any endeavor in how he fields his results. Habits operate in a neurological loop consisting of three parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. In cricket the cue might be a won game, the routine taking credit for it and the reward is a boost to our ego. To change a habit you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward but insert a new routine.

What we do: When we have a good outcome, it cues the routine of crediting the result to our awesome decision-making, delivering the reward of a positive update to our self-narrative. A bad outcome cues the routine of off-loading responsibility for the result, delivering the reward of avoiding a negative self-narrative update. With the same cues, we flip the routine for the outcomes of our peers, but the reward is the same – feeling good about ourselves.

The good news is that we can work to change this habit of mind by substituting what makes us feel good. The golden rule of habit change says we don’t have to give up the reward of a positive update to our narrative, nor should we.

We can work to get the reward of feeling good about ourselves from being a good credit-giver, a good mistake-admitter, a good finder of mistakes in good outcomes, a good learner and a good decision maker. Instead of feeling bad when we have to admit a mistake, what if the bad feeling came from the thought that we might be missing a learning opportunity just to avoid blame? Or that we might be basking in the credit of a good result instead of recognizing, like Ivey, where we could have done better? If we put in the work to practice this routine, we can field more of our outcomes in an open minded, more objective way, motivated by accuracy and truth-seeking to drive learning. The habit of mind will change, and our decision making will better align with our long term goals.

When we look at the people performing at the highest level of their chosen field, we find they have developed habits around accurate self-critique.

Changing the routine is hard and takes work.


The empty rituals of daily lives

Tabish Khair in The Hindu




Just as religious rituals move the practitioner away from the immensity of faith, secular rituals move citizens’ attention away from real issues


Serious religious thinkers have tended to distinguish between ritual and religion. Some, of course, have distinguished between spirituality and religion too, mostly because they have associated religion with rituals.

Now, rituals have their uses, as long as we employ them in the full awareness that they are arbitrary and man-made. This applies to secular matters as well as religious ones: I like my ritual of a morning cup of coffee with a biscuit or two, but I do not assume that this is god-ordained or that my day will not commence unless I have my cup of coffee. So, I am not talking of rituals of this sort. I am talking of rituals that are made ‘essential’ to either religion or secular life.

The matter with religion is clear enough. The reason why religious but nonconforming thinkers, like Kabir, railed against rituals was that they perceived how rituals are used, in the name of religion, to control, influence and exploit people. They also felt that rituals are worldly matters and have nothing to do with the divine. The priestly classes insist on rituals, as if god would care about the colour of your dress, the posture of your prayer, the number of your beads, etc. Rituals proliferate in religions because they allow the priestly classes to control and exploit ordinary believers. Instead of being used as an option, the coffee cup ritual becomes a necessity imposed on the ordinary believer, often at great cost.

Rituals in secular life

This much is clear enough about religion, and explains why so many religious thinkers — apart from the accredited priestly classes, whether mullahs or pandits — tended to criticise rituals or blind observance of rituals. But how, you might be asking, do rituals work in the secular sphere? Because such rituals are not confined to religion. They also exist in secular life, and are used by various ‘priestly classes’ to mislead, control and exploit ordinary people. I suspect that basically religious people, conditioned to associate belief with rituals, are likely to be misled by rituals in secular life too.

A ritual in secular life is like a ritual in religion: it is demanding, obsessive, unavoidable, essential. It is the one thing that you ‘need’ to do in order to have a good life (in this world or the next, or both). Or so the priestly classes claim. Because when you really look at this ‘essential’ ritual, it falls apart. It is not necessary; you can do without it. You can understand the world in other ways, live your life differently. But no, the priestly classes claim, you have to practice this ritual — or you will suffer and probably be damned for all eternity!

Rituals of prosperity

Think of the rituals that we are surrounded by in ordinary secular life. Think, for instance, of all those economic figures trotted out by national economists in all countries to show that the nation is progressing. GNP. Average national income. The rising value of shares in the stock market. These are rituals of prosperity, because if you really look into them, they mean nothing. Or they mean nothing because they have been turned from actual, though limited, indicators into sweeping rituals: empty practices.

A rise in GNP, the average national income, or the share market can indicate some types of prosperity, but these are not enough — and they are misleading when trotted out in ritualistic fashion by politicians. In each case, there is a good chance that some people might be gaining and many more losing. Take the situation of Amazon: the company is thriving, but, at least in the U.S., it is reputed to offer its workers a very meagre wage package and unsatisfactory working conditions. To think that the profits being made by Amazon is percolating down to its workers is to make a mistake. But that is the mistake we make when we simply note the net value of Amazon or the rise in its shares. Such figures play the role of empty rituals.

With countries, the matter is even more complex, as the prosperity of a country depends on factors other than financial ones. Hence, politicians who give us general figures and averages, whether correct or not, are indulging in empty rituals.

Of course, figures are not the only rituals practiced by politicians in power, the apex of the secular priestly classes. For instance, it is a ritual to construct a highway without making a sustained effort to improve the existing highways, to create a super-city without a sustained effort to improve the urban infrastructure in existing cities, to raise the statue of a great leader and ignore the best aspects of his example.

These acts and decisions are rituals because they are empty and misleading. Just as a ritual in religion moves the practitioner away from the endless immensity of faith to a delusive shortcut, a ritual in secular life moves citizens’ attention away from all the real issues and offers a soupçon of misleading satisfaction. I fear that we Indians might or might not be a spiritual people, but we do have a certain tendency to indulge — and let others indulge — in empty rituals in religious as well as secular life.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Good Luck Imran!

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times







The Miltablishment, Judiciary, ECP and Media – “pillars of the state” – are entitled to pat one another on the back for successfully putting Imran Khan in office. Their task became doubly difficult after Nawaz Sharif defied expectations to return to the country and court arrest, triggering sympathy votes in Punjab that threatened to derail their carefully laid plans.

The opposition parties are rightly crying foul. They have demanded the resignation of the CEC and his associates for facilitating the theft of the general elections. The ECP’s explanation about the mysterious breakdown of the RTS system – denied by NADRA which put the system in place and monitored it — and the extraordinary delays in announcing the results hasn’t washed. Nor is it easy to stomach the fact that in many constituencies the lead of the winner is less than the number of rejected votes. The sharp rebuke from the ECP confirms a decidedly partisan sentiment in its ranks.

Clearly, those who thought that unprecedented pre-poll rigging would suffice to get “suitable results” were wrong. A last-minute intervention was necessitated in the dead of night on Election Day when the numbers seemed to be going awry. But that’s not the end of the story.

The “Independents” are now being corralled and branded. Small fry like the GDA, PMLQ, MQM, BAP, TLYRA, etc are being offered “sweetners” while the PPP is being whipped into submission. Asif Zardari, Feryal Talpur,Owais Tappi, Yousaf Raza Gillani, and a clutch of other Zardari cronies and PPP leaders have been read out the Riot Act by NAB and FIA: Cooperate or Else.

Still, it’s going to be a long haul for Imran Khan and Associates. The bare victories in Islamabad and Lahore will be buffeted every day for the next five years. Indeed, the project of putting Imran Khan in office will have to be updated by a project to keep him in office. Amidst this, the core objective of “Tabdeeli” will be very difficult to achieve.

For starters, Imran Khan will need help in assembling his teams in KPK, Punjab and Islamabad so that the core objective is kept firmly in mind. The refusal to appoint Pervez Khattak as CM of KPK suggests that the Miltablishment will retain veto power over critical appointments. The buzzwords in these quarters are “Neat, Clean and Obedient”. But a contradiction between means and ends is already palpable. The PTI has been stuffed with dirty “lotas” and traditional, status quo “electables” to bring Imran into office and keep him there by a carrot-and-stick policy. But “Tabdeeli” requires motivated ideologues to sacrifice self-interest and support hard decisions. The current intraparty spat over the CMships of KPK and Balochistan, or the resistance faced by Not-so-Neat-And-Clean Aleem Khan, or the visible power struggle between Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Jehangir Tareen for the coveted CMship of Punjab, is just the tip of the iceberg. The notion of public service or duty – central to the requirement of “Tabdeeli” — is alien to these folks.

The celebratory fireworks on the day Imran Khan is sworn in as Prime Minister will be followed by a different display of fire power. The Miltablishment, which has been tarred in the public imagination by its blunt political intrusions of late, may withdraw behind the curtain and let the “elected” government take responsibility for its actions. That would give the media and judiciary scope to redress their failing credibility by taking the government to task. Indeed, neither pillar of the state can afford to be pro-government for its own sake – the media for its commercial interests and the judiciary for its independence from the executive. This is bound to put several spanners in the works.

As if this isn’t enough, the job of putting the economy on track will provoke howls of protest from the very classes that have voted for Imran Khan. Currency depreciation will fuel inflation. Reduction in budgetary deficits will curtail public expenditures, consumer demand and employment. Plugging the balance of payments gap by curtailing imports and capital transfers will restrict commercial activity (SBP has already banned imports on open account save for essential raw materials). Increasing tax rates will be unpopular. Provincial bureaucracies and politicians will fight tooth and nail over any attempt to reverse the last NFC Award that flushed them with money, no less than any attempt to devolve power and funds to local governments, which are the preferred nurseries of the Miltablishment for nurturing “neat and clean and obedient” politicians.

The Miltablishment will also expect Imran Khan to exploit his “star” status to manage foreign policy productively. But it would be naïve to expect the two key players that impinge on us, India and the US, to overnight repose trust in him so long as he remains a proxy. The problem is that if Khan tries to cut loose from his key benefactor in pursuit of his own vision, he will feel the heat just like Nawaz Sharif did.

Good luck to Imran Khan!

The Pakistan election was fair

S Y Quraishi in The Indian Express


The general election in Pakistan is being described as a milestone in the democratic history of the country. This is only the second transition from one full-term civilian government to another, and the first under the new Election Law, 2018. I got a great opportunity to observe the event from a ringside seat as a member of the Commonwealth Election Observers Group. The 15-member group headed by Abdulsalami Abubakar, former head of state of Nigeria, spent 12 days to observe events leading up to the election, the polling and counting day and the declaration of the results over three days.

The group met delegations from the leading political parties, civil society and the media to understand the pre-electoral environment, which was reported to point to a not-too-fair election. We were told of massive pre-poll “rigging”. Mainly, three things were cited: Forcing of certain party leaders to return their tickets, muzzling of the media, and misuse of the army and judiciary in favour of a particular party. It is difficult to understand how the changing loyalties of political leaders can be described as rigging — such political engineering is common in the Subcontinent where turncoats and horse trading are household terms. Some media representatives said that after a lot of subtle and overt intimidation, many have decided on self censorship as a wiser option. The hold of the army on institutions like the judiciary, the National Accountability Bureau, the media, etc was a common refrain. We were told naming the army was taboo, full of risks. Therefore, alternative expressions or euphemisms had been evolved, like “establishment”, “powers that be”, “khalai makhlooq” (people from outer space), “angels” and even “agriculture department”.

People who questioned the impartiality of the military and judiciary cited the timing of court cases against certain political leaders and candidates. Media were allegedly prevented from fully covering certain issues like the rights of the minorities and the role of state institutions. For the poll-day arrangements, questions were focused on the large-scale deployment of the army. Concerns were raised about the order to deploy soldiers inside the polling stations. We, therefore, decided to focus special attention on these concerns.

We observed that candidates from across parties and independents were able to campaign freely and peacefully. Maybe we arrived too late, by which time the games were already played. The overall security situation was tense, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan, where terrorist attacks in the preceding weeks claimed more than 170 lives, including of three candidates. However, the parties were able to organise their rallies freely as per Election Rules 2017. A lot of negative and abusive campaigning was initially reported but after the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) stern action under the model code, most people fell in line.

We found the electoral system quite robust, with a substantially reformed legal framework consisting of the Constitution of Pakistan, the Elections Act, 2017 and Election Rules, 2017, which has led to a greater autonomy of the ECP, including financial autonomy, power to make rules and punish for contempt, and to deregister or delist an existing political party. Officials deputed for election duties have now been brought under the ECP’s disciplinary control.

Some legal reforms for enhancing women voters’ participation are noteworthy. The ECP can declare an election null and void if less than 10 per cent women have voted in a constituency. This had a salutary effect in those frontier regions where women were traditionally not allowed to vote. Each party has to nominate a minimum of 5 per cent women candidates for the general seats in the National Assembly. This is in addition to 70 seats in the National Assembly (272 members) which are filled by nomination by the political parties according to the number of seats won. (Incidentally, 10 seats are reserved for minorities). Special campaigns by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), political parties and civil society helped increase their enrolment as voters. Separate polling stations for women, run entirely by women, also encouraged turnout.

Polling day passed off peacefully much to everyone’s relief. There was a 53 per cent turnout, significantly higher than the 48 per cent in 2013.

Unlike India, the counting in Pakistan is done at the polling station itself immediately after polling closes. There were several questions raised about the counting. Some parties alleged that the polling agents were not allowed to observe the counting from close up. Some complained that their agents were thrown out of the stations. There were allegations that Form 45 (result sheet) was neither given to polling agents nor pasted on the wall of the PS. The ECP denied the first allegation clarifying that only those agents who were in excess of one per party were asked to leave. It, however, admitted to several instances of the second allegation and promised to take action. The ECP also admitted the failure of the Result Transmission System because it had not been pilot tested adequately. The foreign minister, whom we met, attributed this, in a lighter vein, to the failure of the British technology on which the app was based.

The conduct of the proscribed militant-dominated religious organisations was watched with interest, a phenomenon of special concern to India. We noted that the ECP, in accordance with the law, did not allow the registration of such entities and individuals to contest elections. However, its mechanism for filtering candidates linked to such organisations was weak which led to three candidates managing to slip through scrutiny. They were, however, delisted on the eve of the election after a hue and cry of the media and civil society. It is remarkable that religious parties with extremist connections were totally routed both in national and provincial assemblies. Tehreek-e-Labbaik managed to get only two seats in Karachi whereas the Allah-o-Akbar party drew a blank.

The elections were closely observed by a huge force of volunteers of civil society led by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) and Trust for Democracy Education and Accountability, besides international observers from the EU, Commonwealth and several diplomats. FAFEN deployed 19,683 citizen observers (including 5,846 women) at more than 65,000 polling stations (almost 80 per cent of the total). Most observers were satisfied with arrangements and conduct of elections. The Commonwealth group commended the ECP for a laudable job in the short time it had to implement its mandate for holding transparent elections on schedule. It regarded the General Election 2018 as an important milestone in strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
Quraishi is former chief election commissioner of India

Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth

Keith Kahn-Harris in The Guardian

We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.” 

Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth.

In recent years, the term has been used to describe a number of fields of “scholarship”, whose scholars engage in audacious projects to hold back, against seemingly insurmountable odds, the findings of an avalanche of research. They argue that the Holocaust (and other genocides) never happened, that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is a myth, that Aids either does not exist or is unrelated to HIV, that evolution is a scientific impossibility, and that all manner of other scientific and historical orthodoxies must be rejected.

In some ways, denialism is a terrible term. No one calls themselves a “denialist”, and no one signs up to all forms of denialism. In fact, denialism is founded on the assertion that it is not denialism. In the wake of Freud (or at least the vulgarisation of Freud), no one wants to be accused of being “in denial”, and labelling people denialists seems to compound the insult by implying that they have taken the private sickness of denial and turned it into public dogma.

But denial and denialism are closely linked; what humans do on a large scale is rooted in what we do on a small scale. While everyday denial can be harmful, it is also just a mundane way for humans to respond to the incredibly difficult challenge of living in a social world in which people lie, make mistakes and have desires that cannot be openly acknowledged. Denialism is rooted in human tendencies that are neither freakish nor pathological.

All that said, there is no doubt that denialism is dangerous. In some cases, we can point to concrete examples of denialism causing actual harm. In South Africa, President Thabo Mbeki, in office between 1999 and 2008, was influenced by Aids denialists such as Peter Duesberg, who deny the link between HIV and Aids (or even HIV’s existence) and cast doubt on the effectiveness of anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki’s reluctance to implement national treatment programmes using anti-retrovirals has been estimated to have cost the lives of 330,000 people. On a smaller scale, in early 2017 the Somali-American community in Minnesota was struck by a childhood measles outbreak, as a direct result of proponents of the discredited theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism, persuading parents not to vaccinate their children.

More commonly though, denialism’s effects are less direct but more insidious. Climate change denialists have not managed to overturn the general scientific consensus that it is occurring and caused by human activity. What they have managed to do is provide subtle and not-so-subtle support for those opposed to taking radical action to address this urgent problem. Achieving a global agreement that could underpin a transition to a post-carbon economy, and that would be capable of slowing the temperature increase, was always going to be an enormous challenge. Climate changedenialism has helped to make the challenge even harder.

Denialism can also create an environment of hate and suspicion. Forms of genocide denialism are not just attempts to overthrow irrefutable historical facts; they are an assault on those who survive genocide, and their descendants. The implacable denialism that has led the Turkish state to refuse to admit that the 1917 Armenian genocide occurred is also an attack on today’s Armenians, and on any other minority that would dare to raise troubling questions about the status of minorities in Turkey. Similarly, those who deny the Holocaust are not trying to disinterestedly “correct” the historical record; they are, with varying degrees of subtlety, trying to show that Jews are pathological liars and fundamentally dangerous, as well as to rehabilitate the reputation of the Nazis.

The dangers that other forms of denialism pose may be less concrete, but they are no less serious. Denial of evolution, for example, does not have an immediately hateful payoff; rather it works to foster a distrust in science and research that feeds into other denialisms and undermines evidence-based policymaking. Even lunatic-fringe denialisms, such as flat Earth theories, while hard to take seriously, help to create an environment in which real scholarship and political attempts to engage with reality, break down in favour of an all-encompassing suspicion that nothing is what it seems.

Denialism has moved from the fringes to the centre of public discourse, helped in part by new technology. As information becomes freer to access online, as “research” has been opened to anyone with a web browser, as previously marginal voices climb on to the online soapbox, so the opportunities for countering accepted truths multiply. No one can be entirely ostracised, marginalised and dismissed as a crank anymore.

The sheer profusion of voices, the plurality of opinions, the cacophony of the controversy, are enough to make anyone doubt what they should believe.

So how do you fight denialism? Denialism offers a dystopian vision of a world unmoored, in which nothing can be taken for granted and no one can be trusted. If you believe that you are being constantly lied to, paradoxically you may be in danger of accepting the untruths of others. Denialism is a mix of corrosive doubt and corrosive credulity.

It’s perfectly understandable that denialism sparks anger and outrage, particularly in those who are directly challenged by it. If you are a Holocaust survivor, a historian, a climate scientist, a resident of a flood-plain, a geologist, an Aids researcher or someone whose child caught a preventable disease from an unvaccinated child, denialism can feel like an assault on your life’s work, your core beliefs or even your life itself. Such people do fight back. This can include, in some countries, supporting laws against denialism, as in France’s prohibition of Holocaust denial. Attempts to teach “creation science” alongside evolution in US schools are fought with tenacity. Denialists are routinely excluded from scholarly journals and academic conferences.

The most common response to denialism, though, is debunking. Just as denialists produce a large and ever-growing body of books, articles, websites, lectures and videos, so their detractors respond with a literature of their own. Denialist claims are refuted point by point, in a spiralling contest in which no argument – however ludicrous – is ever left unchallenged. Some debunkings are endlessly patient and civil, treating denialists and their claims seriously and even respectfully; others are angry and contemptuous.

Yet none of these strategies work, at least not completely. Take the libel case that the Holocaust denier David Irving brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 1996. Irving’s claim that accusing him of being a Holocaust denier and a falsifier of history was libellous were forensically demolished by Richard Evans and other eminent historians. The judgment was devastating to Irving’s reputation and unambiguous in its rejection of his claim to be a legitimate historian. The judgment bankrupted him, he was repudiated by the few remaining mainstream historians who had supported him, and in 2006 he was imprisoned in Austria for Holocaust denial.

 
David Irving in Austria after being imprisoned for Holocaust denial in 2006. Photograph: Herbert Neubauer/Reuters

But Irving today? He is still writing and lecturing, albeit in a more covert fashion. He still makes similar claims and his defenders see him as a heroic figure who survived the attempts of the Jewish-led establishment to silence him. Nothing really changed. Holocaust denial is still around, and its proponents find new followers. In legal and scholarly terms, Lipstadt won an absolute victory, but she didn’t beat Holocaust denial or even Irving in the long term.

There is a salutary lesson here: in democratic societies at least, denialism cannot be beaten legally, or through debunking, or through attempts to discredit its proponents. That’s because, for denialists, the existence of denialism is itself a triumph. Central to denialism is an argument that “the truth” has been suppressed by its enemies. To continue to exist is a heroic act, a victory for the forces of truth.

Of course, denialists might yearn for a more complete victory – when theories of anthropogenic climate change will be marginalised in academia and politics, when the story of how the Jews hoaxed the world will be in every history book – but, for now, every day that denialism persists is a good day. In fact, denialism can achieve more modest triumphs even without total victory. For the denialist, every day barrels of oil continue to be extracted and burned is a good day, every day a parent doesn’t vaccinate their child is a good day, every day a teenager Googling the Holocaust finds out that some people think it never happened is a good day.

Conversely, denialism’s opponents rarely have time on their side. As climate change rushes towards the point of no return, as Holocaust survivors die and can no longer give testimony, as once-vanquished diseases threaten pandemics, as the notion that there is “doubt” on settled scholarship becomes unremarkable, so the task facing the debunkers becomes both more urgent and more difficult. It’s understandable that panic can set in and that anger overwhelms some of those who battle against denialism.

A better approach to denialism is one of self-criticism. The starting point is a frank question: why did we fail? Why have those of us who abhor denialism not succeeded in halting its onward march? And why have we as a species managed to turn our everyday capacity to deny into an organised attempt to undermine our collective ability to understand the world and change it for the better?

These questions are beginning to be asked in some circles. They are often the result of a kind of despair. Campaigners against anthropogenic global warming often lament that, as the task becomes ever more urgent, so denialism continues to run rampant (along with apathy and “softer” forms of denial). It appears that nothing works in the campaign to make humanity aware of the threat it faces.

The obstinacy with which people can stick to disproved notions is attested to in the social sciences and in neuroscientific research. Humans are not only reasoning beings who disinterestedly weigh evidence and arguments. But there is a difference between the pre-conscious search for confirmation of existing views – we all engage in that to some extent – and the deliberate attempt to dress this search up as a quest for truth, as denialists do. Denialism adds extra layers of reinforcement and defence around widely shared psychological practices with the (never articulated) aim of preventing their exposure. This certainly makes changing the minds of denialists even more difficult than changing the minds of the rest of stubborn humanity.

There are multiple kinds of denialists: from those who are sceptical of all established knowledge, to those who challenge one type of knowledge; from those who actively contribute to the creation of denialist scholarship, to those who quietly consume it; from those who burn with certainty, to those who are privately sceptical about their scepticism. What they all have in common, I would argue, is a particular type of desire. This desire – for something not to be true – is the driver of denialism.

Empathy with denialists is not easy, but it is essential. Denialism is not stupidity, or ignorance, or mendacity, or psychological pathology. Nor is it the same as lying. Of course, denialists can be stupid, ignorant liars, but so can any of us. But denialists are people in a desperate predicament.

It is a very modern predicament. Denialism is a post‑enlightenment phenomenon, a reaction to the “inconvenience” of many of the findings of modern scholarship. The discovery of evolution, for example, is inconvenient to those committed to a literalist biblical account of creation. Denialism is also a reaction to the inconvenience of the moral consensus that emerged in the post-enlightenment world. In the ancient world, you could erect a monument proudly proclaiming the genocide you committed to the world. In the modern world, mass killing, mass starvation, mass environmental catastrophe can no longer be publicly legitimated.

Yet many humans still want to do the same things humans always did. We are still desiring beings. We want to murder, to steal, to destroy and to despoil. We want to preserve our ignorance and unquestioned faith. So when our desires are rendered unspeakable in the modern world, we are forced to pretend that we do not yearn for things we desire.

Denial is not enough here. As an attempt to draw awareness and attention away from something unpalatable, it is always vulnerable to challenge. Denial is a kind of high-wire act that can be unbalanced by forceful attempts to draw attention to what is being denied.

Denialism is, in part, a response to the vulnerability of denial. To be in denial is to know at some level. To be a denialist is to never have to know at all. Denialism is a systematic attempt to prevent challenge and acknowledgment; to suggest that there is nothing to acknowledge. Whereas denial is at least subject to the possibility of confrontation with reality, denialism can rarely be undermined by appeals to face the truth.

The tragedy for denialists is that they concede the argument in advance. Holocaust deniers’ attempts to deny that the Holocaust took place imply that it would not have been a good thing if it had. Climate change denialism is predicated on a similarly hidden acknowledgment that, if anthropogenic climate change were actually occurring, we would have to do something about it.

Denialism is therefore not just hard work – finding ways to discredit mountains of evidence is a tremendous labour – but also involves suppressing the expression of one’s desires. Denialists are “trapped” into byzantine modes of argument because they have few other options in pursuing their goals.

Denialism, and related phenomena, are often portrayed as a “war on science”. This is an understandable but profound misunderstanding. Certainly, denialism and other forms of pseudo-scholarship do not follow mainstream scientific methodologies. Denialism does indeed represent a perversion of the scholarly method, and the science it produces rests on profoundly erroneous assumptions, but denialism does all this in the name ofscience and scholarship. Denialism aims to replace one kind of science with another – it does not aim to replace science itself. In fact, denialism constitutes a tribute to the prestige of science and scholarship in the modern world. Denialists are desperate for the public validation that science affords.

While denialism has sometimes been seen as part of a post-modern assault on truth, the denialist is just as invested in notions of scientific objectivity as the most unreconstructed positivist. Even those who are genuinely committed to alternatives to western rationality and science can wield denialist rhetoric that apes precisely the kind of scientism they despise. Anti-vaxxers, for example, sometimes seem to want to have their cake and eat it: to have their critique of western medicine validated by western medicine.

The rhetoric of denialism and its critics can resemble each other in a kind of war to the death over who gets to wear the mantle of science. The term “junk science” has been applied to climate change denialism, as well as in defence of it. Mainstream science can also be dogmatic and blind to its own limitations. If the accusation that global warming is an example of politicised ideology masked as science is met with indignant assertions of the absolute objectivity of “real” science, there is a risk of blinding oneself to uncomfortable questions regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the idea of pure truth, untrammelled by human interests, is elusive. Human interests can rarely if ever be separated from the ways we observe the world. Indeed, sociologists of science have shown how modern ideas of disinterested scientific knowledge have disguised the inextricable links between knowledge and human interests.

I do not believe that, if only one could find the key to “make them understand”, denialists would think just like me. A global warming denialist is not an environmentalist who cannot accept that he or she is really an environmentalist; a Holocaust denier is not someone who cannot face the inescapable obligation to commemorate the Holocaust; an Aids denialist is not an Aids activist who won’t acknowledge the necessity for western medicine in combating the disease; and so on. If denialists were to stop denying, we cannot assume that we would then have a shared moral foundation on which we could make progress as a species.

Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way.

On 6 November 2012, when he was already preparing the ground for his presidential run, Donald Trump sent a tweet about climate change. It said: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

At the time, this seemed to be just another example of the mainstreaming of climate change denialism on the American right. After all, the second Bush administration had done as little as possible to combat climate change, and many leading Republicans are prominent crusaders against mainstream climate science. Yet something else was happening here, too; the tweet was a harbinger of a new kind of post-denialist discourse.

Trump’s claim is not one that is regularly made by “mainstream” global warming denialists. It may have been a garbled version of the common argument on the US right that global climate treaties will unfairly weaken the US economy to the benefit of China. Like much of Trump’s discourse, the tweet was simply thrown into the world without much thought. This is not how denialism usually works. Denialists usually labour for decades to produce, often against overwhelming odds, carefully crafted simulacra of scholarship that, to non-experts at least, are indistinguishable from the real thing. They have refined alternative scholarly techniques that can cast doubt on even the most solid of truths.

 
Donald Trump announcing his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Trump and the post-truthers’ “lazy” denialism rests on the security that comes from knowing that generations of denialists have created enough doubt already; all people like Trump need to do is to signal vaguely in a denialist direction. Whereas denialism explains – at great length – post-denialism asserts. Whereas denialism is painstakingly thought-through, post-denialism is instinctive. Whereas denialism is disciplined, post-denialism is anarchic.

The internet has been an important factor in this weakening of denialist self-discipline. The intemperance of the online world is pushing denialism so far that it is beginning to fall apart. The new generation of denialists aren’t creating new, alternative orthodoxies so much as obliterating the very idea of orthodoxy itself. The collective, institutional work of building a substantial bulwark against scholarly consensus gives way to a kind of free-for-all.

One example of this is the 9/11 truth movement. Because the attacks occurred in an already wired world, the denialism it spawned has never managed to institutionalise and develop an orthodoxy in the way that pre-internet denialisms did. Those who believe that the “official story” of the September 11 attacks was a lie can believe that elements in the US government had foreknowledge of the attacks but let them happen, or that the attacks were deliberately planned and carried out by the government, or that Jews/Israel/Mossad were behind it, or that shadowy forces in the “New World Order” were behind it – or some cocktail of all of these. They can believe that the towers were brought down by controlled demolition, or that no planes hit the towers, or that there were no floors in the towers, or that there were no passengers in the planes.

Post-denialism represents a freeing of the repressed desires that drive denialism. While it still based on the denial of an established truth, its methods liberate a deeper kind of desire: to remake truth itself, to remake the world, to unleash the power to reorder reality itself and stamp one’s mark on the planet. What matters in post-denialism is not the establishment of an alternative scholarly credibility, so much as giving yourself blanket permission to see the world however you like.

While post-denialism has not yet supplanted its predecessor, old-style denialism is beginning to be questioned by some of its practitioners as they take tentative steps towards a new age. This is particularly evident on the racist far right, where the dominance of Holocaust denial is beginning to erode.

Mark Weber, director of the (denialist) Institute for Historical Review, glumly concluded in an article in 2009 that Holocaust denial had become irrelevant in a world that continues to memorialise the genocide. Some Holocaust deniers have even recanted, expressing their frustration with the movement and acknowledging that many of its claims are simply untenable, as Eric Hunt, previously a producer of widely circulated online videos denying the Holocaust, did in 2016. Yet such admissions of defeat are certainly not accompanied by a retreat from antisemitism. Weber treats the failures of Holocaust denial as a consequence of the nefarious power of the Jews: “Suppose The New York Times were to report tomorrow that Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum had announced that no more than 1 million Jews died during the second world war, and that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz. The impact on Jewish-Zionist power would surely be minimal.”

Those who were previously “forced” into Holocaust denial are starting to sense that it may be possible to publicly celebrate genocide once again, to revel in antisemitism’s finest hour. The heightened scrutiny of far-right movements in the last couple of years has unearthed statements that might once have remained unspoken, or only spoken behind closed doors. In August 2017, for example, one KKK leader told a journalist: “We killed 6 million Jews the last time. Eleven million [immigrants] is nothing.” A piece published by the Daily Stormer in advance of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that same month ended: “Next stop: Charlottesville, VA. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

Indeed, the Daily Stormer, one of the most prominent online publications of the resurgent far-right, demonstrates an exuberant agility in balancing denialism, post-denialism and open hatred simultaneously, using humour as a method of floating between them all. But there is no doubt what the ultimate destination is. As Andrew Anglin, who runs the site, put it in a style guide for contributors that was later leaked to the press: “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humour – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”

Not all denialists are taking these steps towards open acknowledgment of their desires. In some fields, the commitment to repressing desire remains strong. We are not yet at a stage when a climate change denier can come out and say, proudly, “Bangladesh will be submerged, millions will suffer as a result of anthropogenic climate change, but we must still preserve our carbon-based way of life, no matter what the cost.” Nor are anti-vaxxers ready to argue that, even though vaccines do not cause autism, the death of children from preventable diseases is a regrettable necessity if we are to be released from the clutches of Big Pharma.

Still, over time it is likely that traditional denialists will be increasingly influenced by the emerging post-denialist milieu. After all, what oil industry-funded wonk labouring to put together a policy paper suggesting that polar bear populations aren’t declining hasn’t fantasised of resorting to gleeful, Trumpian assertions?

The possibility of an epochal shift away from denialism means that there is now no avoiding a reckoning with some discomfiting issues: how do we respond to people who have radically different desires and morals from our own? How do we respond to people who delight in or are indifferent to genocide, to the suffering of millions, to venality and greed?

Denialism, and the multitude of other ways that modern humans have obfuscated their desires, prevent a true reckoning with the unsettling fact that some of us might desire things that most of us regard as morally reprehensible. I say “might” because while denialism is an attempt to covertly legitimise an unspeakable desire, the nature of the denialist’s understanding of the consequences of enacting that desire is usually unknowable.

It is hard to tell whether global warming denialists are secretly longing for the chaos and pain that global warming will bring, are simply indifferent to it, or would desperately like it not to be the case but are overwhelmed with the desire to keep things as they are. It is hard to tell whether Holocaust deniers are preparing the ground for another genocide, or want to keep a pristine image of the goodness of the Nazis and the evil of the Jews. It is hard to tell whether an Aids denialist who works to prevent Africans from having access to anti-retrovirals is getting a kick out of their power over life and death, or is on a mission to save them from the evils of the west.

If the new realm of unrestrained online discourse, and the example set by Trump, tempts more and more denialists to transition towards post-denialism and beyond, we will finally know where we stand. Instead of chasing shadows, we will be able to contemplate the stark moral choices we humans face.

Maybe we have been putting this test off for too long. The liberation of desire we are beginning to witness is forcing us all to confront some very difficult questions: who are we as a species? Do we all (the odd sociopath aside) share a common moral foundation? How do we relate to people whose desires are starkly different from our own?

Perhaps, if we can face up to the challenge presented by these new revelations, it might pave the way for a politics shorn of illusion and moral masquerade, where different visions of what it is to be human can openly contend. This might be a firmer foundation on which to rekindle some hope for human progress – based not on illusions of what we would like to be, but on an accounting of what we are.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Thinking in Bets - Questions to examine the accuracy of our beliefs

Extract 3

1. Why might my belief not be true?

2. What other evidence might be out there bearing on my belief?

3. Are there similar areas I can look toward to gauge whether similar beliefs to mine are true?

4. What sources of information could I have missed or minimized on the way to reaching my belief?

5. What are the reasons someone else could have a different belief, what’s their support, and why might they be right instead of me?

6. What other perspectives are there as to why things turned out the way they did?


A good strategy for figuring out which way to bet would be to imagine if the outcome has happened to us. If a competitor closes a big sale, we know about our tendency to discount their skill. But if we imagine that we had been the one who closed the sale, we are more likely to find the things to give them credit for, that they did well and that we can learn from. Likewise, when we close the big sale, let’s spare a little of the self-congratulations and, instead, examine that great result the way we’d examine it if it happened to someone else.

Treating outcomes as bets constantly reminds us that outcomes are rarely attributable to a single cause and there is almost always uncertainty in figuring out the various causes. Identifying a negative outcome doesn’t have the same personal sting if you turn it into a positive by finding things to learn from it. You don’t have to be on the defensive side of every negative outcome because you can recognize, in addition to things you can improve, things you did well and things outside your control. You realise that not knowing is okay.