Plato Would Have Laughed at Our Era's Faith In Rationalism

How did our world come to be ruled by a view of human nature that contradicts the testimony of much of history, and the bulk of the arts, and your daily experience? Mathoholics are to blame. 

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


1. History will puzzle over our era’s ruling faith in rationalism. Behavioral economics is shaking that faith but as Nick Romeo notes, Plato described “cognitive biases” ~24 centuries ago.

2. And Plato is far from alone. Hasn’t every realistic writer described humanity’s everywhere-evident cognitive foibles? Except some math-obsessed economists?

3. Doesn’t history, and the arts, and daily experience, testify against those hyper-rational individualists of econo-models?

4. For instance, here's Shakespeare on confirmation bias: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs...”

5. The gist of many cognitive biases shouldn’t surprise non-economists (“a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” = “loss aversion”).

6. Daniel Kahneman’s cognitive-bias-cataloging Nobel involved studying grandmotherly wisdom (every psychologist knows we’re “neither fully rational, nor completely selfish”).

7. Beyond the fun of footnoting philosophy-founding dialogues with cognitive biases, Plato would have laughed at econo-rationalism.

8. And Plato saw money-lust as enslavement to irrational impulses (now driving mindless market priorities).

9. He knew we’re irrationally persuadable. He hated sophists for teaching how to sell seductive surfaces over substance (marketing over product). Marketing, obviously, has always used cognitive biases (under-theorized).

10. Even as many economists declare that we’re rational optimizers, businesses operate on the profitable principle that there’s an easily manipulable fool born every minute.

11. But Plato abetted modern rationalism’s rise by popularizing math-lust. 2,000 years later “falling in love with geometry” was an Enlightenment “occupational hazard.” And today similar math-worship (for algebra + stats) drives economists to irrational math-oholic fantasies.

12. Largely unnoticed is how Plato’s dialogues dramatize the shortcomings of “cognitive individualism.”

13. Social cognition research shows that “individual knowledge is always remarkably shallow”—>“we never think alone.”

14. Isn’t it self-evident that we evolved to reason socially? Thinking, like every other significant aspect of human nature, evolved collectively and tribally (not econo-individualistically).

15. Intriguingly, while “confirmation bias” worsens solo thinking, it can improve group reasoning (other cognitive perspectives countering your biases—>don’t think alone, or with cognitive clones).

16. Countering cognitive individualism is how science succeeds (bias-balancing processes).

17. That famed-science-institution motto "take no man's word for it," also applies to your own word. Feeling sure that you’re right often isn’t a reliable intuition. We fall in love with ideas and methods and become blind to our beloved’s faults.

18. Math-method-loving economists strengthen faith in rationalism by routinely excluding "obvious empirical” facts if they’re not equation friendly. This “equation filtering” begets “theory-induced blindness” (field-wide method-level bias).

19. This math-fashioned folly must misrepresent us for its beloved math model-making to work. Arguing that models, like maps, must exclude details, fails because here we’re ignoring known roadblocks. There’s no efficient-allocation market nirvana without rationally optimizing masses.

20. Beyond the matho-pathology of unbehavioral economics, misplaced faith in rationalism enabled Donald Trump’s presidency. He grasps empirical psychology better than many rationalists. Every salesperson knows persuasion isn’t factual or logical, but unavoidably emotional, and trust-dependent (see Aristotle on ethos, pathos, logos).

21. Ways of life that deny our deeply limited, deeply flawed, deeply social nature are doomed to history’s dustbin.

 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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