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Do We Really Live In Dangerous Times, or Does It Just Feel That Way?
Many say these are the most dangerous violent times humans have ever faced. Pundits dismiss those fears with numbers that show how these are the Best of Times, Who's right? It doesn't really matter. What does is, why are people so worried.
There's a dark & a troubled side of life
There's a bright, there's a sunny side, too
Tho' we meet with the darkness and strife
The sunny side we also may view.
(The opening verse of a classic country song)
It is popular among pundits and intellectuals to pontificate that people are irrational to call these the Worst of Times, the scariest, most violent, threatened days humans have ever faced. The thought leaders who raise this criticism cite a host of metrics showing that we are generally better off than we’ve ever been, and that in many ways we live in the Best of Times. So who’s right, the Chicken Littles who worry that the Sky is Falling or the June Carter fans who would have us Keep On The Sunny Side of Life?
The answer is…it doesn’t matter, because that’s the wrong question. The more relevant question is, why do so many people who are indeed living longer, healthier, safer lives deny the sunny numbers and still see a sky full of storm clouds? The answer to that question matters more, because a world that feels scary is scary to people who see things that way, and those perceptions, far more than the numbers alone, compel the choices we make, how we act, and how we treat each other.
The latest entry in the “No, The Sky is NOT Falling” literature is The World Is Not Falling Apart an essay in Slate by Andrew Mack and Steven Pinker. I am a huge fan and casual acquaintance of Professor Pinker, who honored me with a blurb recommending my book about the psychology of risk perception. That’s relevant, because the psychology of how we perceive and respond to potential danger explains why the case Mack and Pinker make, that the world is less violent than many people assume, fails to reassure, despite the persuasive statistics they cite. People’s fears and worries, and their behaviors, are the product not of the facts alone, but how we feel about those facts.
So why do so many people see the dark and troubled side of things, when Mack/Pinker’s sunny statistics show that war and genocide and murder and rape and child assault are going down. Well, first of all, statistics about violence are only part of the story. The sky is hardly cloud free. We face the existential threat of climate change and all the other harms humans are doing to the biosphere on which we depend. Fundamentalist religious terrorism is spreading. Old diseases are outwitting our antibiotics. The next new global pandemic disease is a matter of when, not if.
But the question here isn’t whether the glass of our modern existence is half empty or half full. The question that matters more is why so many people only seem to see the empty part, and what that worry does to the choices we make and how we live our lives. Mack and Pinker blame our irrational worries on the news media and their constant dramatic alarms about the latest threat du jour. This is true, to a degree. The study of human cognition has found that we overestimate the likelihood of whatever is on the radar screen of our consciousness, and the radar screen in the modern 24/7 media world is full of blips about the latest possibility that the sky may be falling.
But blaming the media is simplistic and insufficient. The broader explanation for our excessive fears is the inherently subjective, emotional, instinctive nature of risk perception itself. Mack and Pinker ask us to reason, to consider the facts and judge things rationally, analytically, objectively; as they put it, “the only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count.” Appealing as that may be intellectually, realistically it’s nonsense. No one should know better than Professor of Psychology Pinker that careful conscious rational calculation is not principally what our brains do.
Our perception of the world is a blend of facts and feelings, the product of the partial information we have, interpreted through the filters of instincts and emotions and personal life experiences and circumstances to produce our final affective view of that information. This blending occurs subconsciously, without our awareness or our purposeful control. As Scottish Philosopher David Hume wrote"
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
Or as sociologist Jonathan Haidt put it,
the emotional tail wags the rational dog.
And in no domain is that more true than the realm of risk, where a host of psychological factors cause some risks to loom larger than they are.
For example, the less control we feel we have, the more worried we are likely to be. The lack of control over their own lives that hundreds of millions of people around the world feel, largely because they see themselves falling behind economically, is surely making the world seem a darker and more threatening place.
We worry more about risks to ourselves than risks to others, and we worry more about risks that are immediate than about how risky things were in the past or how dangerous they might be in the future. The general trend may be that wars and murders and genocides are decreasing, but those global third person abstractions-over-time have less emotional valence than the media generated awareness of threats that are local and current and personal. And even reassuring numbers about current and personal threats don’t rationally dispel our fears. A risk that’s only one in a million still feels scary if you think you could be the one.
Then there is loss aversion, the instinct that causes us to overweight the downside of any choice or judgment, to place more emotional emphasis on danger than the odds suggest, to worry about many things more than the facts alone say we need to. We instinctively see the dark and troubled side of things more than the sunny side. Excessive precaution may not seem rational, but it sure helps us survive.
Finally, there is hard evidence from neuroscience that the emotional tail wags the rational dog as a result of the innate architecture, wiring and chemistry of the brain itself. The way the brain is physically laid out insures that emotion and instinct have the upper hand over the cold hard reason in which Mack and Pinker’s place their faith. As Ambrose Bierce wrote in the Devil’s Dictionary (paraphrasing);
Brain, n., The organ with which we think we think.
Given all the evidence about the inescapably subjective nature of human cognition, it is naïve to suggest that “the only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count”. In fact, such rationalist faith in reason is preachy, bordering on intellectually arrogant, suggesting as it does that seeing things any other way is unsound. Worse, it’s dangerous, because it places too much faith in human reason as THE solution to our problems and challenges, which simply will not be solved with ‘counting’ alone.
Yes, our choices and behaviors, as individuals and as societies, must consider the facts as thoroughly and objectively as possible. Of course we need to fight back with reason against an instinctive and emotional risk perception system that causes us to worry about some threats more than we need to, and not to worry about some threats as much as we should. We need to recognize the risk of what I call The Risk Perception Gap, when our fears don’t match the facts, leading to all sorts of additional risks all by itself.
But the kind of faith in reason and objective rationality that Mack and Pinker call for when they suggest that “an evidence-based mindset on the state of the world…might …dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.” is overly optimistic and dangerous. Faith that we can overcome our instincts and emotions with reason traps us into believing that with a little more careful thinking we can SOLVE all the problems of the Risk Perception Gap caused when our emotions color how we see the facts. WE CAN’T.
The precautionary instinct to see some threats as greater than they are is a deep part of human cognition. It helps us survive. Yes, as Mack and Pinker note, the misperception that the world is a darker and more troubled place than it is also causes profound problems. But thinking we can outsmart this deep instinct and thus eliminate those problems keeps us from managing those challenges and looking for ways to mitigate their harms. Realistically, that’s probably the best we can do, and it would be the most rational way to apply our intelligence to the task of making the world a safer healthier place.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.