Tuesday, November 3, 2015

When Big Ideas Produce Pseudo-Religions

Why do certain big ideas produce manias? Why do intelligent people allow themselves to be consumed by one big idea? Why do true believers become fanatical to the point where they believe that they hold a complete purchase on the truth? And, why do they want to impose their political program on everyone, regardless of what everyone else, the unenlightened masses, wants?

Because, in the end, ideological zealots feel most threatened by your freedom, your freedom to choose how to live your life.

Why is it, in other words, that zealots are so easily drawn to calls for tyranny? This morning Bret Stephens asked this question. Coming fast upon Bill Gates’s pronouncement that only socialism can save the world from climate change, it comes not a moment too soon. See my recent post about the Climate Change Mania.

And ask yourself this: what made Bill Gates think that he is an authority on climate science? What made him think that he could see the future and that his vision was scientific truth? What made him think that he should impose himself on the world? Was it because he’s richer than anyone else?  Or was it because his foundation’s financial support for Common Core had produced such a rousing success?

Intellectual manias persist, regardless of the facts, because they offer membership in cults that are based on belief and conviction.

Nate Silver once remarked that some theories are idea-driven and that some are fact-driven. An idea driven theory begins with a narrative fiction. It's not about trying to discover the truth but to convince you that this narrative is true. 

Believers will try to persuade you of the absolute truth of the narrative by cherry-picking "facts" that appear to make it look true. If you begin with an idea, Plato argued, facts will be reduced to appearances. They only have value if they make it appear that the narrative is true.

Those who promulgate idea-driven narratives will assert that there is no such thing as a fact that can disprove the idea. When a fact seems to disprove an idea its proponents will explain that this is only apparent, because their idea represents a higher truth. Generally, this truth amounts to the truth of desire. Being as you cannot be said to desire something that you really have, your desire is always detached from reality. 

Zealots are attracted to such narratives because they no longer have to deal with uncertain outcomes. It's like a game of heads I win/tails you lose. They find great solace in playing with loaded dice.

If your thinking is fact-based or empirical, you do not begin with an idea or a narrative. You begin by collecting data. Then you formulate a hypothesis and run an experiment to test it. If the results prove the hypothesis, well and good. If they do not, you can dispose of the idea.

For this process to work, philosopher Karl Popper famously said, you must admit beforehand that some experimental results can disprove the hypothesis or falsify the theory. 

And you must, physicist Richard Feynman added, report all of the results. You cannot do science if you cherry-pick the data you want to report.  

When Popper developed his theory of falsifiability nearly seven decades ago, he was considering, among other things, whether Freudian psychoanalysis was a science. He concluded that it was not. He saw that the theory, as constructed by Freud did not admit to the possibility that any fact could disprove it. In a strange way Freud was inviting you to take it on faith.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes Popper:

… nothing could, even in principle, falsify psychoanalytic theories. These latter, Popper came to feel, have more in common with primitive myths than with genuine science. That is to say, he saw that what is apparently the chief source of strength of psychoanalysis, and the principal basis on which its claim to scientific status is grounded, viz. its capability to accommodate, and explain, every possible form of human behaviour, is in fact a critical weakness, for it entails that it is not, and could not be, genuinely predictive. Psychoanalytic theories by their nature are insufficiently precise to have negative implications, and so are immunised from experiential falsification.

All psychoanalysts know what Popper said. For decades now they have lived in a state of denial. They believe that when the facts seem to contradict their ideas, it’s a test of their faith. In Freudian psychoanalysis does not teach you to repress inconvenient truths, what good is it?

As you know, I wrote a book The Last Psychoanalyst to demonstrate the point. There I argued that psychoanalysis began as a pseudo-science and became a pseudo-religion.

For his part Stephens begins with the idea of the population explosion. It was concocted by noted entomologist Paul Ehrlich. In 1968 Ehrlich predicted that the earth’s population would soon overwhelm its resources. Given the imminent danger, women would have to be prevented from having too many children… by whatever means necessary.

This could easily give rise to a tyranny like China’s recently discarded one-child policy, but it might also lead people to glorify sexual behaviors that are contraceptively foolproof.

As for the facts of the case, Stephens refutes Ehrlich easily:

The idea of a population bomb was always preposterous: The world’s 7.3 billion people could fit into an area the size of Texas, with each person getting 1,000 square feet of personal space. Food has never been more abundant. As for resource scarcity, the fracking revolution reminds us that scarcity is not so much a threat to mankind as it is an opportunity for innovation.

Stephens explains that today's liberalism involves "would-be believers in search of a true faith." I would add that it involves people whose anomie has so completely detached them from their social moorings in their nations that they are desperately seeking a cult to belong to.

In Stephens' words:

Modern liberalism is best understood as a movement of would-be believers in search of true faith. For much of the 20th century it was faith in History, especially in its Marxist interpretation. Now it’s faith in the environment. Each is a comprehensive belief system, an instruction sheet on how to live, eat and reproduce, a story of how man fell and how he might be redeemed, a tale of impending crisis that’s also a moral crucible.

In short, a religion without God. I sometimes wonder whether the journalists now writing about the failure of the one-child policy ever note the similarities with today’s climate “crisis.” That the fears are largely the same. And the political prescriptions are almost identical. And the leaders of the movement are cut from the same cloth. And the confidence with which the alarmists prescribe radical cures, their intolerance for dissenting views, their insistence on “global solutions,” their disdain for democratic input or technological adaptations—that everything is just as it was when bell-bottoms were in vogue.

Apparently, everyone needs something to believe in. Having dispensed with the God of the Bible,  today’s liberals are not merely looking for big ideas to worship, but they are looking for cult leaders, for great geniuses who can become the figureheads of new, inviting cults.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: As for the facts of the case, Stephens refutes Ehrlich easily: "The idea of a population bomb was always preposterous: The world’s 7.3 billion people could fit into an area the size of Texas, with each person getting 1,000 square feet of personal space. Food has never been more abundant. As for resource scarcity, the fracking revolution reminds us that scarcity is not so much a threat to mankind as it is an opportunity for innovation."

Stuart, I'm disapointed that you are convinced so easily. Perhaps you're so convinced that you'd like to invest in the fracking industry at the moment?

But buyer beware, and some believe the fracking industry isn't a way to increase long term oil production, but some even call it a ponzi scheme since its expansion depended on the appearance of succss, and pays out "profits" generated not by oil sales, but land and stock speculation. But if it fails, we can just blame Obama and taxes, right?

Apparently "big ideas" produce "pseudo-religons" like "infinite growth" and the music keeps playing as long as there's a new generation of buyers into the game, while we don't notice the diminishing returns, except for the fact that the middle class is working harder and getting further in debt every year to keep everything going.

And if someone comes along and questions this "faith" in infinite growth, they're just X or have their own "big ideas" like "living within our means" and "acting as if future generations might need the wealth and resources and biosystems we are destroying as fast as possible."

Perhaps I should apologize for doubting your "big ideas", but snark is more fun and I know there are no facts yet in the future as you say, so there's no use using reason to speculate what might happen when you jump off a bridge, and just do whatever "feels best" now and let the future take care of itself, and its not our fault if we made bad decisions, because there's no facts we can use to define our bad decisions, since the future doesn't exist yet.

But there are real scientists doing real work, and they're human too, and make mistakes, for all their efforts at objectivity. I saw this recent article in Nature, called optimistically "How scientists fool themselves – and how they can stop".
Humans are remarkably good at self-deception. But growing concern about reproducibility is driving many researchers to seek ways to fight their own worst instincts.
This is the big problem in science that no one is talking about: even an honest person is a master of self-deception. Our brains evolved long ago on the African savannah, where jumping to plausible conclusions about the location of ripe fruit or the presence of a predator was a matter of survival. But a smart strategy for evading lions does not necessarily translate well to a modern laboratory, where tenure may be riding on the analysis of terabytes of multidimensional data. In today's environment, our talent for jumping to conclusions makes it all too easy to find false patterns in randomness, to ignore alternative explanations for a result or to accept 'reasonable' outcomes without question — that is, to ceaselessly lead ourselves astray without realizing it.

And back to Stuart's conclusion: Apparently, everyone needs something to believe in. Having dispensed with the God of the Bible, today’s liberals are not merely looking for big ideas to worship, but they are looking for cult leaders, for great geniuses who can become the figureheads of new, inviting cults.

Yes, apparently if those liberal scientists would just get back to religion, they'd stop believing crazy things and scientists would stop deceiving themselves. That's a good hypothesis worth testing...

KCFleming said...

Excellent post.
The current PC global warming multi-culti socialist culture is far more rigid than the 1950s the left so derided.

And the left's old claim that man invented God has proved to be either projection of their own desires, or prophetic in that absent religious belief, or when too demanding, they will erect a golden calf to worship.

KCFleming said...

As for fracking, Ares, you're missing the point.
The left predicted a future of shortages and overpopulation.
They were wrong about both.
They are repeatedly wrong because they ignore science in favor of ideology, having replaced God with materialism and historical Marxism.

Seek the forest, not the trees.

Baloo said...

Good piece. Reblogged and quibcagged:
Does your ideology accept facts, or ignore them

Leo G said...

Feynman, "even show the results that could disprove your hypothesis"

Phil Jones, "why should I give you my data? You will try to use it to disprove me"

Hmmm, seems one's a scientist, the other not.

Ares Olympus said...

Leo G said... Feynman, "even show the results that could disprove your hypothesis"

I think you're misrepresenting what Feynman said.

Actually Stuart said: And you must, physicist Richard Feynman added, report all of the results. You cannot do science if you cherry-pick the data you want to report.

And Stuart is misrepresenting Feymann's integrity call as well. Feymann is saying to report results, even if inconclusive. He's not talking about cherry-picking data for the purpose of strengthening a case.

It comes from this speech on "Cargo cult science". And the issue of integrity primarily comes out for not ignoring research that contradicts the interests of the the persons who funded your research. It says a scientist should tell his funders that he won't keep quiet if the results go against what the funder wants to hear, and if the funder won't agree, then a good scientist should refuse the money.

One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of result.

For example—let’s take advertising again—suppose some particular cigarette has some particular property, like low nicotine. It’s published widely by the company that this means it is good for you—they don’t say, for instance, that the tars are a different proportion, or that something else is the matter with the cigarette. In other words, publication probability depends upon the answer. That should not be done.

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would he better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

And in terms of "data sharing?, Feynman is talking about publishing conclusions from an experiment. It's not saying you should give raw data to unqualified people who are not interested in finding out the truth, but just wasting your time making bad faith interpretations that have to be refused over and over, and still repeated no matter how many times you try to explain what something means.

If mailman Cliff Clavin wants to pretend to analyse 10,000 man hours of scientific labor with his predefined conclusions while looking for a nail, you might imagine the author of that labor will not feel cooperative.

KCFleming said...

Neither Stuart nor Leo misrepresented Feynman; their views are in agreement.

As for Clavin, remember that Einstein had been a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office.

E.g., that the CBS Bush Texas National Guard docs were faked was uncovered by schlubs in pajamas on the internet.

But Clavin would have a hard time getting published anyway.

Leo G said...

Ares, you do get that just because you do not have a few alphabet letters after your name, it does not disqualify you from being/having the ability to understand or work the data, right.

If I remember this correctly, Jones statement was made about Steve McIntyre's request for his data. From Wiki -

"Early life and education[edit]

McIntyre, a native of Ontario, attended the University of Toronto Schools, a university-preparatory school in Toronto, finishing first in the national high school mathematics competition of 1965.[2] He went on to study mathematics at the University of Toronto and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 1969. McIntyre then obtained a Commonwealth Scholarship to read philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduating in 1971.[1][2] Although he was offered a graduate scholarship, McIntyre decided not to pursue studies in mathematical economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.[2]"

So your castigating of this chap as an uneducated man is just plain bullocks. As for finding the truth, the only way there is through trial and error, not a condescending attitude of ultimate knowledge.

JK Brown said...

"But the root of the opposition to [classical]liberalism cannot be reached by resort to the method of reason. This opposition does not stem from the reason, but from a pathological mental attitude— from resentment and from a neurasthenic condition that one might call a Fourier complex, after the French socialist of that name."


"In the life of the neurotic the “saving lie” has a double function. It not only consoles him for past failure, but holds out the prospect of future success. In the case of social failure, which alone concerns us here, the consolation consists in the belief that one’s inability to attain the lofty goals to which one has aspired is not to be ascribed to one’s own inadequacy, but to the defectiveness of the social order. The malcontent expects from the overthrow of the latter the success that the existing system has withheld from him. Consequently, it is entirely futile to try to make clear to him that the utopia he dreams of is not feasible and that the only foundation possible for a society organized on the principle of the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production."

Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (p. 16). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.

Mises discussion isn't easy to excerpt but he does point out that the resentment can be addressed with reason. At a point, the anti-liberal will realize their desire to hurt those they resent will also hurt themselves. The "Fourier Complex" is not subject to reason. We see it all around us in all those who cannot handle life's little setbacks and soldier on. Their great plans, for which they do little to foster, failing is always due to some one victimizing the "Modern Liberal".

In comparing to religion, Mises had this observation:

"Just as the devout Christian could more easily endure the misfortune that befell him on earth because he hoped for a continuation of personal existence in another, better world, where those who on earth had been first would be last and the last would be first; so, for modern man, socialism has become an elixir against earthly adversity. But whereas the belief in immortality, in a recompense in the hereafter, and in resurrection formed an incentive to virtuous conduct in this life, the effect of the socialist promise is quite different. It imposes no other duty than that of giving political support to the party of socialism; but at the same time it raises expectations and demands."

Mises, Ludwig von (2010-12-10). Liberalism (p. 17). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's a recent related blog topic, from skeptic Judith Curry.

First quoting Feynmann's ideal of scientific integrity.
From a commencement address by Richard Feynman that described what this type of integrity entails:

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

And then contrasts to what she calls the Stigler conviction, basically recognizing how ideas actually propagate in part by a force of will, by a few strong advocates who surrender objectivity in favor of an impatient belief that the future can't want for absolute certainty, and action is needed sooner than later. So this is also where Rush Limbaugh's quote comes in "Don't trust the facts of people with causes" although the corollary is "Don't too easily trust your resistance to new facts because you don't like the implications."

And so we can look at James Hanson in his 1988 presentation to Congress moving into advocacy, and later Michael Mann's "Smoking gun" hockey stick graph which equally pushed Mann out of objectivism into advocacy, a certainty action is needed sooner than later.

And so it makes sense there's going to be push back against Hanson and Mann, for their surrender of Feynmann's ideal of integrity in favor of the precautionary principle of taking action before absolute proof is demonstrated. If you're diving down the road at 80mph, you can consider it prudent to brake a little if you can't tell what's happening in front of you, than to wait until you know exactly that you're in trouble, when its too late to avoid a collision.

What keeps me from the purist view of AGW is that I don't think its the fastest disaster in our future, but probably the slowest one. So I go more with James Howard Kunstler's view of "The Long Emergency", and all the tough challenges of globalization and demographics hit hard before 2030, while climate change is more of a 2050-2150 predicament for our grand children.

We can't solve climate change until we solve survival without continual economic growth, how to run an economy that doesn't have to grow 5% per year to pay for all the obligations we've promised from the past. Globalization gave us a 30 some year respite from reality, and now there doesn't seem to be enough tricks left to keep the illusions alive.

Anonymous said...

If science is defined as that which can be falsified by measurement, then the realm of scientific validity is constrained to a narrow scope of human experience. Then every idea held with conviction that cannot be falsified via some objective measurement process is by definition a pseudo-religious belief. The only scientific thing to do with such beliefs is hold them open to question or doubt, and recognize that others have no compelling reason to accept one's own pseudo religion, perhaps because their experience is unique and leads them to form alternative or competing beliefs.

Ares Olympus said...

Anon @8:53am

That's probably Carl Sagan's Scientific and Humanitarian view, but implicitly including his own assumption, that our creation was random, and the universe wasn't meant for us, and what we do doesn't matter any more than what meanings we make from it.
Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign.
There is in this Universe much of what seems to be design. But instead, we repeatedly discover that natural processes—collisional selection of worlds, say, or natural selection of gene pools, or even the convection pattern in a pot of boiling water—can extract order out of chaos, and deceive us into deducing purpose where there is none.

The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance.

If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.

E.F. Schumacher attempts a higher discussion recognizing something he called materialistic scientism, separating the (soft) descriptive sciences of observation and the (hard) instructional science of manipulation where repeatability is demanded and only exists when we consider the lowest level of reality of deterministic dead matter that follows fundamentals laws we can discover and use for our own purposes.

Climatology might seems to inhabit a potential middle ground between descriptive and instructional sciences. If the earth is just a big ball of dead matter, then what we do to it doesn't matter, even if we're still responsible for the unintended consequences. And scientists like James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, that the earth behaves as-if it was a living organism, with a biosystem that moderates its own climate in favor to conditions that allow life to flourish. He invented an imaginary daisy world with black and white flowers where the white flowers bloomed in warm conditions to reflect more light into space and black flowers that bloomed in cool conditions to absorb more heat from the sun.

So living systems can moderate the earth's climate without any "conscious intention", but we can consider there are "hidden intentions" as well within the biosystem, and they might be subtle, slow like evolution, but maybe not as random as Carl Sagan prefers to imagine.

Anyway, such questions are more philosphy than science, and how can you prove or disprove "intentional evolution"? If angels or fairies are needed to make the flowers bloom every spring, how would we tell those hidden beings to step aside, so we can do our experiments without their interference?

So if you're a good scientist, its better not to speculate in things you can't prove or disprove, and assume everything is random, because of Ockham's razor demands it?

One way I'd suggest we test whether life is more than mechanical is by computer simulation. Science fiction writers are sure we will someday download human intelligence into a computer and we can live forever, and the singularity, where computer power equals what is necessary to simulate reality is just a few decades away. So if there are things we can't model in our physics, like angels or fairies or immortal souls, then our computer programs may never do what life can do.

Whether philosophical ideas are pseudo-religions depends on how strongly we believe them as literal facts. If there are things like Jung's collective unconscious that connects all of life in a hidden web, how do you talk about them without being completely wrong?

Maybe everything above science is either poetry or lies or both?

Anonymous said...


If the question is whether the universe is orderly or random then the answer is either Yes or I don't know.

Yes: because I simultaneously observe, or more likely my mind automatically generates and recognizes, patterns of order and randomness.

I don't know: because I am not aware of any experiment or observation that anyone could propose that would clearly invalidate either hypothesis.

In electrical engineering there are statistical distributions (measured patterns) of noise (randomness) called white noise, Gaussian noise, Chebyshev noise, etc. So noise is random and we observe its pattern via statistical models.

What is the probability that I exist? P = 1, a certain event. Should I now calculate the probability that life does not emerge and speculate that I might not exist due to the belief that reality is random? If so, then random reality has generated a certain event in which a person calculates the odds that a certain event might not be certain. The logic is poor when randomness is assumed to be a property of reality rather than a property of one's own mind reflecting perceptions of a small slice of reality.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. Okay, Stuart is right, at least in tribal politics, pseudo-religious purity-test "big ideas" would seem to trump reasoned argument.

Case in point:
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), along with Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, is introducing a bill Wednesday that would bar new leases on coal, gas, oil, and tar sands extraction on [federally owned] public lands in the U.S. The bill, titled the Keep it in the Ground Act, would also prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean and prohibit the renewal of leases that haven’t yet produced fossil fuels.

At least its easier to recognize that Obama and Hillary are not true liberals like Sanders. If Merkley and Sanders were serious they'd treat fossil fuels fairly with a carbon tax, and allow a multidecade long transition to alternatives.

Instead Sanders wants to instantly cut domestic production and cause expanded oil imports, and will spike the profits for domestic coal and natural gas on private or state-owned land, while consumers will foot the bill for this artificial scaricity.

So Sanders isn't serious and this is just gamesmanship, setting a goal that is so outrageous that the loyal opposition opposes it, and Sanders can raise more money from liberals who want to pretend the repubicans are immoral.

Oh, well, we'll have to wait another election cycle for a chance to elect the first Jewish president. I guess now I'll have to support Hillary for the first grandmother president, (since Obama is the first woman president, and Bill was the first black president.)

Anonymous said...

GK Chesterton: "When man ceases to believe in God, he won't believe Nothing. He'll believe in Anything."

I'm an agnostic existentialist. I know Nothing about Everything. A harsh austere philosophy.

Most people can't endure Chaos, uncertainty, The Void. I sympathize. -- Rich Lara