sam harris

On the prevalence "Alternative Facts"

Speaking as a professional purveyor of "alternative facts"...

That's really what a magician is; someone who creates an alternate set of facts... at least temporarily. The difference is that the audience knows — or at least is supposed to know — where the alternative facts live and is able to leave them behind at the door. While I joke during one of the demonstrations in my show about setting up a member of the audience to start their own religion, even going so far as to suggest the rest of the audience prepare to tithe, the donations are never forthcoming. (And that's a good thing.)

The question remains, then, why are we good at identifying alternative facts only some of the time?  

Recently, Business Insider offered an insightful look at why we have such a hard time purging misinformation from the public consciousness:

Facts about all manner of things have made headlines recently as the Trump administration continues to make statements, reports, and policies at odds with things we know to be true.

Whether it’s about the size of his inauguration crowd, patently false and fear-mongering inaccuracies about transgender persons in bathrooms, rates of violent crime in the U.S., or anything else, lately it feels like the facts don’t seem to matter. The inaccuracies and misinformation continue despite the earnest attempts of so many to correct each falsehood after it is made. It’s exhausting. But why is it happening?

They identify a very real psychological phenomenon called the backfire effect:

As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information “backfires.” When people don’t agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less.

In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it’s actually going to make things worse.

It's a serious problem that does not admit of an obvious solution? How do you change someone's mind? It's a bootstrapping problem, eloquently described by Sam Harris:

What has become very clear to me over the past year or two, is the solution is not to cut off contact with these people. We read often that the way you deal with a T***** or Milo Yiannopoulos supporter in your Facebook feed is to unfriend them. While that spares you the unpleasantness of having to notice whatever they post, you also take yourself out of their feed and reduces the chances they will encounter viewpoints contrary to their own and have to deal with the cognitive dissonance. A similar strategy is observable on college campuses where student groups will try to have speakers they disagree with disinvited. (The trendy term is "deplatforming".) 

What these approaches fail to recognize is that humans rarely change their minds quickly. The Apostle-Paul-style Road-to-Damascus conversions where a lightswitch gets flipped in the brain and you fall to your knees are the exception rather than the norm. Even in science where rationality is supposed to rule the day they still have the expression that "Science advances one funeral at a time." You have to let the new information sink in gradually and stew for an extended period. And to leave people in the dust when that process has just started is unhelpful.

So part of the responsibility is on the reasonable people to tough it out and endure the misinformation, offering polite and well-sourced corrections rather than reaching for the block button.  

Jerry Coyne on Free Will

The Imagine No Religion conference recently posted the video of Jerry Coyne's presentation at their fifth annual conference in Vancouver earlier this year. This talk was actually given before his talk about Faith Vs. Fact in Toronto, but the video has just appeared. It's a great talk. 

When it comes to free will, for me the writing has been on the wall since I was a teenager. From what I was reading at the time, it was clear that the concept was indefensible. It came up in the writings of Richard Feynman and Scott Adams' God's Debris offered up a concise reductio ad absurdum.

But even then, it wasn't a very straightforward argument. In order to make sense of the claim that our sense of free will is an illusion, it would have been necessary to go into a lengthy digression about physics and just what exactly we know about the universe (or at that age what I had read that other people knew, since I didn't know calculus yet.) Through the study of magic and illusion I found a much more straightforward illustration of why free will is an illusion (I'm not sure if that's irony or poetic justice.)

A member of a magic audience may be called upon to make choices. Do I choose the red scarf or the blue one? Do I take the $5 or the $20 out of my wallet? Do I touch this playing card or the one three quarters of an inch to the left? Now the choice may not matter. The trick can proceed exactly the same way regardless of which card you select. Or it's possible that the magician influences your choice in a way you are unaware of so that the choice you feel you are making is actually a choice being made by the magician.

David Ben, in his book Advantage Play, Coyned the term "virtual participation" to refer to this situation where the spectator feels like an active participant but in reality their actions are not influencing the outcome. This opens the door to a possibility which is (to some) frightening. There can be influences affecting the outcomes of your decisions of which you are completely unaware. 

If those influences can come from outside your body (a magician priming you to make a certain choice such that the cues go unnoticed), then they can come from inside your body. Your brain already does quite a bit of "thinking" that you are completely unaware of. You're not making any conscious effort to keep your heart beating. You breathe without thinking about it most of the time you're awake (and all of the time when you're asleep.) Once you acknowledge the possibility that your brain is doing thinking you're not aware of (and really at this point, it's a certainty, not a possibility) then the question becomes how much of this thinking is taking place? Free will isn't all or nothing; it's a sliding scale.

Even before you have to concede the kind of strict materialism Jerry suggests, you already have to admit that free will is at least severely limited.

Most people who attempt to rescue free will do so by redefining it back into existence. Daniel Dennett makes a convincing case for embracing a definition of free will which is compatible with physical determinism. Since the chemical mechanisms which underly our decision making are so intractably complex they are unpredictable to the point where, for all practical purposes, we can label them as free without any measurable loss in accuracy.

At first glance, this seems like a slightly sneaky thing to do. It's not without precedent though. Frequently in science as our understanding changes, we give updated definitions to old terms. So the definition of what constitutes an electron has changed since it was discovered, the thing we called the electron is still the same thing, but our understanding of it has changed such that the previous definition was problematic and incoherent.

So the idea of free will has been replaced by the feeling we experience of having free will. Nothing in the world practically changes. We don't all of a sudden become lifeless automatons. The question still remains for beings with finite access to information and finite computational power: What is the most responsible way to behave given the information we have available to us. So if our actions are so unpredictable that they might as well be free, then we are, for all intents and purposes free.

So just get on with the card trick.

I Believe In Atheists

In the same space at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre, at Summerworks, we shared our space with several other productions. One particularly interesting one, which I couldn't wait to see was I Believe in Atheists. The play deals with the question of what happens to unbelievers when they die. The premise: all of the world's religions are true (just go with it for a moment) and you receive the afterlife that matches your beliefs. The downside is that unbelievers must therefore be snuffed out of existence permanently.

Now I really liked the play and appreciate it as a piece of fiction. But the atheist buzz-kill deep inside of me feels the need to address some things it got wrong.

There is a (I think I'm forced to use this word) belief that what we believe somehow influences what's true. It seems to be a combination of the silly position that "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" along with the usual way people confuse correlation with causation.

True many people believe that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around as was once thought) and in probabilistic sense that does make this fact very likely to be true. But it was still true even when no one believed it. The fact exists independently of belief. It's not true because people believe it; it's true and people believe it. That very big difference often gets lost in the course of clumsy human discourse.

There is an oft-invoked argument for god(s); the "so many people can't be wrong" argument. Which is not a valid argument regardless of how persuasive it feels.

One of the things that magic has taught me is that people don't make decisions based on facts; we make decisions based on beliefs. Whether a fact is true doesn't matter nearly as much as whether or not we believe it's true.

Unfortunately, magic has taught me how incredibly easy it is to cause people to believe untrue things. This realization morphed into one of the opening lines for my show:

... where we explore how things which are not real can still shape reality.

It's been a long time since I've been forced to evaluate my own views on death. It's been ten years since my father past away and since we were estranged, it was not a difficult thing to cope with.

Certainly all the evidence that I'm familiar with, from biology to physics, suggests that there should be nothing that could be called an after-life. There is no sense in which consciousness continues once the brain stops functioning. No chance to look down on the rest of the world after the fact. No place where we can be reunited with people who are no longer here. No possibility of coming back in another form.

At first glance it seems awfully depressing. It seems obvious that a great deal of religious belief originated as wishful thinking designed to make it easier to cope with the loss of loved ones. The ability to say "don't worry, he's in a better place" seems useful even if it's not true. To have to go through loss like that without those platitudes and false consolations is incredibly difficult.

I've heard the argument that "energy cannot be created or destroyed so surely we must go on somehow." That sounds like wonderful physics, but the truths of physics don't bear that out.

But physics offers some consolation, in something called the "Minus First Law of Thermodynamics" [1] which states that "information" cannot be lost. Information is used in a rather unusual sense, but it translates as follows: On small scales, all of the laws of physics are reversible in time. That is, if you look at a large scale video (say of a teacup falling off the edge of a table) and they play the video backwards, there's a visible difference and you can tell forward in time from backward in time. Unusually if you look at a very small scale (if you could see the individual atoms in the cup and the tea), there would be no way to tell the difference between forward and backward.

This means that given enough "information", you can work out the past and future states of a system to arbitrary detail. (This was the theory governing Douglas Adams' "Total Perspective Vortex" where you could create a picture of the entire universe by observing a single piece of fairy cake.) So in this sense, the influence that a person has while alive on the world and the people in it, continues on forever into the future.

When you add to that the concept of a meme (a term coined by Richard Dawkins many years ago in The Selfish Gene). While alive, we can create ideas (write them down even) and those ideas can spread like a cat photo on the internet and survive us. Just look at Shakespeare, who lives on even though the individual has long since turned to dust. So all is not lost.

But that leaves the fact that when we're gone, we're gone. And no amount of false consolation will change that. I think one of the great challenges that lie ahead of us in the twenty-first century will be to find a way to deal with death, and talk about death without having to resort to lies and fairy tales.

[1] Harvey R. Brown et al. "The Origins of Time-asymetry in Thermodynamics: The Minus First Law"

[Updated July 2013]