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Why smart people aren't better at transcending their biased views
Jonah Lehrer's post at The New Yorker details some worrying research on cognition and thinking through biases, indicating that “intelligence seems to make [such] things worse." This is because, as Richard West and colleagues concluded in their study, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them."
Being smarter does not make you better at transcending unjustified views and bad beliefs, all of which naturally then play into your life. Smarter people are better able to narrate themselves, internally, out of inconsistencies, blunders and obvious failures at rationality, whereas they would probably be highly critical of others who demonstrated similar blunders.
I am reminded of Michael Shermer's view, when he's asked why smart people believe weird things, like creationism, ghosts and (as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) fairies: “Smart people are very good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons." If you've ever argued with a smart person about an obviously flawed belief, like ghosts or astrology, you'll recognise this: their justifications often involve obfuscation, deep conjecture into areas you probably haven't considered (and that probably aren't) relevant, and are all tied together neatly and eloquently because she's a smart person.
It is troubling that smarter people are often worse off, because they cannot recognise the biases and blunders, due to a deep, complex layer of justification they've narrated to themselves. It's troubling because we expect smart people to be the ones devoid of biases more than others. However, expectation as usual takes a backseat to evidence. Perhaps all we should expect of intelligence, however you conceive it, is a way of thinking, not the content of thought. This means, even if the belief is quite absurd, the methods to get to it can be smart (sophisticated theology is like this to me). But that's just one way and assuming one kind of definition of intelligence, which is notoriously difficult to study, let alone quantify.
However, this confirms something more practical to me. As Lehrer says, we're good at picking out the flaws in others. If this is true, this confirms my earlier view that we shouldn't want a world in which agreement is everywhere. We must welcome criticism and argument, since, no matter how smart we are (indeed, as this indicates, especially considering how smart we might be), we could be wrong. We are, fundamentally, flawed and fallible.
Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right. Smart people will especially be difficult to counter if the criticism is made with capital letters, bad spelling, worse grammar and comparisons to Hitler, psychopaths and terrorists. This is a further reason why online trolling doesn't help and can make things worse: it's already difficult trying to convince a smart person that he's wrong, reasonably and with evidence, but it only makes him more convinced of his views if he sees opposition as mostly wrathful Neanderthals banging their knuckles on a keyboard.
The irony of course is that if smart people are good at picking out flaws in others, but terrible at recognising their own even when it's pointed out to them, the entire project seems pointless! I'm not sure that it is (I wouldn't be writing if I didn't have good reason to think otherwise). Smart people at some point will be stumped, since, if you have the advantage of being smart and right, with irrefutable evidence, you can do a lot of damage to their layer of internal confirmation stories (which tells of how an individual is right despite inconsistencies).
We forget that learning something new usually means unlearning biases we are probably all born with: thus, (1) if we are smart and (2) haven't been challenged at vulnerable times, say when we're younger, on certain entrenched views that many have, then when counter-arguments are presented, the bad beliefs are so tightly knitted due to our being smart that we can't simply weave a new thread. The previous one, with all its knots and bows, must itself be carefully undone.
This is, as Lehrer pointed out in a previous post, why many people don't believe in science, especially as per the Gallup polls findings on creationism and evolution: 46% believed in creationism in 1982 and 44% think the same in Gallup's latest poll. Science is, to use Lewis Wolpert's phrase, “unnatural": common sense “will never give an understanding about the nature of science. Scientific ideas are, with rare exceptions, counter-intuitive… secondly, doing science requires a conscious awareness of the pitfalls of natural thinking… lay theories are highly unreliable." Not only is a scientific view on subjects, like "Where did we come from?", counter-intuitive, even when presented with evidence to support it, people must overcome their previous, deeply entrenched views. If these views are entrenched furthermore with the abilities of a smart person, no wonder then that it makes the job even more, rather than less, difficult.
This, again, though, should not make us apathetic in trying to still convince people, even smart ones. Smart doesn't make you right: it just makes you, in many instances, better at thinking that you are.
Image Credit: olly/Shutterstock
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.