Friday, January 27, 2017

If Science Becomes Quasi-Religious

There is a huge furor over Trump's ban on EPA and other government agencies' public communication.  A similar thing happened in Canada under Prime Minister Harper.  Governments controlling the public communication of its employees via communication officers and chain of commands is pretty common.  Banning all communication is not.  Extreme filtering of science oriented departments is not common.  It reeks of 1984 right-think.

But is the reaction to this from the scientific community rational?  Here's the first clue some sacralization may be happening.


Today's media is in a direct battle with Trump.  Over the last year it has sensationalized every piece of information pertaining to him.  Some of this has been valid.  Some has been pure clickbait.  Some has been purposeful obfuscating polemization.  There certainly are no clean hands here.  The press has sown the seeds of its own destruction here; and, perhaps facilitated, or amplified the seeds of societal factionalization and decoherence.

Hypersensitivity around sacred values, like climate change, or possibly mundane actions done by unclean actors, is a clue that quasi-religious dynamics are at play.  Is "science" at risk of quasi-religiosity?  Let's look at an outlier - climate change.

Science or Religious Dynamics
The dynamics here do not look pretty in this regard.  Those who question any tenet of climate change are labelled deniers and are ostracized from academia.  This may or may not be reasonable.  Certainly a physicist who favours a luminous ether over gravitational space-time may not be functional.  Indeed this is the way most people view climate change.

But sharp critique is what advances science.  Science works because even the most cherished idea is always subject to factual counters.  Climate change really isn't subject to question.  It is happening.  But are all attacks about it "happening", or are some attacks based on questions about structural bias? (see this David Friedman lecture for example). Are some based upon resource prioritization?  What if resource prioritization is erroneously phrased in terms of climate change factuality? Does the position suddenly become "wrong" because of imprecise language? What if the terms of the argument are purposefully off to facilitate persuasion?  Is it now "wrong"? Are the decisions of a populace subject to persuasion (from both sides) illegitimate if they pick the "wrong" answer?  Are populace decisions only "right" when there is equal balance?  Is it only "right" if the balance occurs in proportion to the factual validity upon which external arbiters judge things to lay?

We can tell where on the quasi-religious spectrum we're at based upon answers to these questions.  This is similar to the basic technique Jonathan Haidt uses to investigate the ex post facto rationalization aspects of disgust.  Is an answer "wrong" based upon its conclusion or its premises?

Scientists tend to say both conclusions and premises have to be right.  For the field, this makes sense. But does it make sense in a representational democracy?

Non-Overlapping Magisteria
First off, there is no way to know what individuals think when they vote.  You can certainly study a sample of voters to try and ascertain their thinking, but often voters aren't fully aware of all their reasons.  As Haidt would say, complex decision making events are more emotional than rational.  So should irrationality defer to expertise in areas of public policy?

If the March for Science was framed in these terms, I would be really happy.  Instead it seems framed in terms of Scientists are right and Trump supporters are idiots.  But to be more charitable, it seems framed in terms of limiting the role popularism can have on scientific agencies.  This seems reasonable.  Reasonable until you think that scientific agencies are also responsible for policy...  Application of action from fact is not as clean cut as some Marchers make out.  This is especially true in ideological monocultures.

Over the last few decades an increasingly untenable elected representational system has offloaded many of its decision making duties to the bureaucratic/technocratic level.   This may be wise: this is where technical expertise lay.  It may be unwise: technocracy tends to become increasingly detached from "reality".

Technocratic detachment from reality fosters revolution.  Parental-governments that always know what is best for people (based upon aggregate averages) eventually run into independence backlash.  "Yes I know having a gun is statistically unsafe, but in my particular circumstance, with my particular abilities, with a psychotic stalker, I don't agree."  This is where the policy application of science runs into popularism.

Scientists are likely to say they have the right premises.  Popularists are likely to say they have the conclusion they like.  The problem is, the language both sides use to communicate has a very minimal cross sectional area.  Thus, at least to me, the fight is really over power.

I see the March for Science fighting for minimal interference from popularism.  Enter in through this institution.  Get filtered according to our advancement (& publishing) criteria, and then you can have a say.  This sets up a potential appeal-to-authority structure.  Classic religious stuff.  Appeal-to-authority structures become non-religious when values are not sacralized.  Unfortunately climate change is sacred.

This is not because of the facts (which are pretty black and white), but because of the morality ascribed to those facts.  For instance, is CO2 of 400ppm "bad"?  Was it "bad" in the Jurassic?  Is it "bad" because how it will effect population diversity?  The latter is a moral question.  It is clearly based upon decision of what outcome is wanted.  How is that different than popularist reasoning?

Where the Conflict Comes From
And that, I think is where the conflict comes from.

Because this is a fight, the chances of it running its course without an arms race is unlikely.  It is structurally likely that each side will begin to employ tools designed to win.  Thus groups of scientists and scientific agencies grow more and more likely to leave out key contextualizing details (Jurassic CO2, dogmatic outcome preferences, positive black-swans, etc.).  Popularists grow more and more likely to rely on persuasion rather than fact  (or pure appeal to dogmatic preference).  At some point the dogma comes out and groups rally around their poles.  Inter-group competition ensues, boundaries solidify and mediating cross-overs become sellouts.  Memetically fit cogents become sacralized (like climate change).  Religious dynamics take over because they tend to be very fit and resonance with adaptive group formation.

The End
The end isn't pretty.

There seems to be an unspoken assumption that progressivism should and will win;  that science tied to a factually correct reality is more adaptive than popularism.  To me, this is where the danger lies.  This assumes a religious like blessing to factual reality.  This type of determinism facilitates inter-group competition: the other side is wrong so let's just jump to the end-game.

Unfortunately practical reality (popularism), is very evolutionary fit.  The ability to rally groups for action isn't always guaranteed to win out over technical ability.

So if you want to avoid needless escalation is the current social wars, think about what role you really want popularism to play?

Example
So, at this point most people would say - science should win.  As discussion often does, group identity and righteousness has been re-enforced.

So let's imagine a department of justice which is ideologically/politically pure.  Say it is as homogenous as the EPA or National Parks Service.  Say 99.9% pure.  This department is very concerned that racial disparity in crime will lead to societal collapse.  They've got very good models on this.  They conduct and release lots of scientific studies (at a grant ratio of 1000:1 for the positive position).  Some of their facts seem robust, like IQ by race or quasi-racial grouping.  Obviously some people don't like them, but their critique is often about conclusions not the science.  Although, they often frame their attacks as a rejection of the science.  Aspects of these "facts" can certainly be questioned, but if you do you'll never get a job, advance in your career, and will socially ostracized as a regressive.

A government was elected that decided elimination of racial disparity was not a priority.  Perhaps they felt locking up lots of people of one race to reduce crime rates was not worthwhile.  Perhaps this is what the people voted for.  Perhaps not.  Perhaps the voters were just racists.  But the department of justice and its scientists feel their expertise on the actions on crime should be minimally subject to dogmatically determined popularism.

Back to Quasi-Religion
While all analogies are necessarily poor and subject to lots of issues, the main point of this one is that ideologically homogeneous institutions create their own dynamics that eventually careen into the wall of populist dogma.  The limitation is that race is easier to delegitimize than "the jurassic wasn't so bad for life".  Science is agnostic about application.  Application may be informed by fact, but it is always moral.  The degree of morality varies, but group dynamics act to accentuate morality.  Thus application is rarely dis-entangeable from group dynamics and quasi-religious behavioural wells.

So, to me the best thing one can do is if you see a scientific meme becoming sacralized, don't employ quasi-religious tools to defend or sell it.  De-sacrilize it by publicizing critiques.  Make them as open as possible, and let the weakness of such arguments be their own downfall.

If nefarious persuasion techniques are used against your position in order to rally the masses, be aware that you may become a doppleganger to the dynamics you're criticizing.  Realize the public policy decisions in representational democracies are almost always based on outcome rather than expert thinking.

If you can't fathom why that may not be as catastrophic as you think, read some judgement aggregation literature, eat a dose of humble pie, and get used to the sacrifices required for pluralism.  Large groups are not stable with a total absence of corruption.  Large plural societies are only stable when they give "enough" space to corruptors with erroneous ideas.  Don't assume a 49% Trump vote means 49% of people deny the facts of climate change.  Some may deny the prioritization of actions. Some may have voted for other policies. Appearing like you're enforcing homogeneity of thought weaponizes inter-group competition which is as likely to make you operate religiously as it is to re-enforce adaptive group dynamics on the other side.

Monday, January 16, 2017

SJW offense hyper-trauma as a gift-of-the-spirit

Over the last few years I've been saying that social justice zealotry appears to conform to functional religious dynamics.  This means that while it might not be as supernatural as religion, the dynamics it produces are, nonetheless, similar.  I tend to use Atran as my base for these discussions.

Increasing social justice demonstrations of hyper-offence trauma show another similarity with (quasi) religion.

Gifts of the spirit are normally interpreted as things useful for fulfilling the mission of the Christian church.  Many of these things are related to organizational processes.  Others are related to social dynamics.  It's the latter that I want to focus on.

Here we have to delve a bit into some of the idiosyncrasies of Christian theology.  Some theologians distinguish fruits of the sprit with signs of the spirit.  To me that distinction is rather arbitrary.  The former tends to focus on long term demonstrables (e.g. kindness) while the latter tends to focus on episodic phenomenological-like signals (e.g. speaking in tongues).  The latter is most applicable to what I do, the scientific study of group-dynamics in moralized environments.

For instance Quakers often signalled being overcome by the spirit by physical quaking.  Shakers amplified the physical demonstrations of their Quaker roots.  Mormonism often signals spiritual envelopment and sincerity by crying.  Crying fits seem to be more frequent in group settings than in individual settings.  Shaking seems to fit a similar pattern.

One interesting possibility (not backed up by any rigorous research) is that gifts of the spirit tend to emerge during Great Religious Awakening moments.  For instance, Quakerism emerged during a Great Religious Awakening.  Mormonism did too.  Social justice emerged during our current Awakening (which we recognize due to moral unfreezing & strong within-society between-group competition).

So, I propose that the hyper-sensitive cycles physically expressed by social justice warriors reflect adaptive group dynamics.  Their functional purpose is to express hard-to-fake commitment and create a sense of synergy with a group and a group-agent moral Big Brother.  They are adaptive because of their role in group norm enforcement, in-group out-group detection and actor-group resonance.


Re-emergence of Secular Shamans

Media and Hollywood celebrities are certainly up-in-arms over the election of Donald Trump.  Post-trauma lethargy is coalescing into actionable intent.  This was certainly evidenced by Meryl Streep's polarizing moralizations.  Free speech is definitely meant to protect this type of commentary.  People are free to muster whomever they can to support whatever position they desire.  Hence my disdain for  people who attempt to use safe-space rhetoric as a way of expanding exclusion and preventing free-association.

The way anti-trump sentiment's form of expression is coalescing amongst various elite factions is very interesting.  Critiques, like those by Meryl Streep, media, and "grassroots" activists who propagate planned memes, centre on the morality of inaugurating an unfit, morally repugnant president.

Whether or not any of that is or is not true is beside the point (at least for socio-quasi-religious dynamics).  What seems clear is that the media and many celebrities are exploring roles as a secular-moral voices to an extent not hitherto done.  For example, cosmopolitan dogma on immigration, like almost another reactionary political position, is framed in moral terms rather than rational (homo-economicus) terms.

Preaching recreates the methodist exhortation well.  The intent isn't to explain a systemic philosophy, it is to exhort people toward certain classes of thought or action.Now, can't all moral speech be classified as exhortation?  Perhaps.  What's interesting though is the role the speech taker is occupying.

Tribal religious leaders have a functional evolutionary role as societal coherers.  This is most easily accomplished through supernaturally enhanced Big Brothers.  A Psychosocial definition of Shamans highlight some interesting parallels (you just have to remove the supernatural elements and replace them with middle-counter-intuitive secularism).

The basic idea is that Shamans represent a interface between people and the supernatural.  One view is that Shamans represents the distress experienced by  the shaman's patrons.  Shamans use dramatizations to direct the feelings of their patrons and resolve social tension.  The shaman helps patrons appreciate symbols that address, interpret and contribute to the resolution of their most pressing problems and conflicts.

One way this happens is by helping people organize their feelings and find representational outlets.  They also personify the social tensions and patterns people are under.  Performance is a key aspect of the technical definition of Shamanism.  Perhaps this is a necessary part of this cognitive group-psychology well, perhaps it isn't.  The key distinguishing feature between Shamanism and standard prophetic roles lies in the physicality of action and depth of  spiritual trance.

"In America, for example, revivalists and evangelical preachers have held great appeal for many people from the seventeenth century to the present day.  The compelling power of these preachers is in large part the result of their ability to dramatically embody the emotional problems and social tensions besetting their patrons," (Porterfield, 1987, p. 729).

So my best guess on what we're seeing with the mainstream media and celebrities like Streep is an unwitting progression into the socio-cognitive well of Shamanistic exhortation.  Clearly this role is strongly mediated by the removal of supernatural elements.  But the key is that these elites are trying to represent the socio-cognitive tension many people are now experiencing under a Trump presidency and electoral rejection of social progressivist tenets.  Expression comes out in physical acts: content and fact don't matter as much as "getting the point across".  This is clearly a post-truth landscape.  This is clearly scary.

From a multi-level selection lens, we're seeing competition amongst elites fall into the traditional bifurcation of formal and informal power expression.  This nouveau priest/shaman class is evolving into informal power expression.

This makes sense.  Celebrities, especially actors, have a ready vehicle on hand to shape people's thinking.  People listing due to prestige bias and perceptual landscape transformation.  See enough movies portraying gun ownership as bad, and you'll be tempted to think of it as a de-facto social norm.  Once speech clearly resonates around said morality and the resonances become hard to ignore.  They polarize.

I suspect one of the keys for people to remember is that religion generally does not look like the systemic theology people often take for granted.  Religion and religious actors have a functional well which resolves around social coherence.  Highly rational systemic approaches are merely one of many solutions for social coherence (which, like Christianity and Islam, happens to be optimized for expansion to out-groups).  Tribal religion is fine with population binormalization.  In fact, it is optimized to separate in-groups from out-groups via focus on over-arching highly implicit moral dogmas and memes.