Evil, Progress, and the Sun

Good vs Evil

I suspect no rationalist takes Hollywood movies seriously, but certain norms are worth talking about, and these norms definitely influence us subconsciously. The one on the chopping block today is good vs evil. There is so often an obviously good side and an obviously evil side. Fortunately, they’re more subtle today—compare the original Star Wars (1977), a painfully old-fashioned good vs evil story, with Rogue One (2016), where it’s not clear some of the protagonists are actually good. But you still know exactly who to root for.

Having thought recently about political polarization/internet bubbles/the attitudes of certain people on both sides of the spectrum, I think a lot of it comes down to people on both sides strongly having the belief they are on the good side and the other side is straight-up evil. I don’t mean someone thinking “the other side is well-meaning but doesn’t understand”, I mean “the other side is evil.” I mostly see the liberal side of this, and when people literally advocate for violence against conservatives, that’s a problem. They don’t see the other side as people to have discourse with, but as an evil menace.

Worse yet, they find no rationalization for the other side. After last year’s election, I saw some people genuinely express that they didn’t know a single Trump supporter and that they couldn’t possibly imagine anyone voting for Trump. Like there’s a dark, mysterious force out there. I voted for Clinton too, but I can very well explain why many people would vote for Trump.

There is a famous quote, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” which I think is an excellent guiding principle to understanding the other side.

Meanwhile, here is a recent New Yorker article on the root of cruelty by Paul Bloom (h/t Julia Galef), who argues that the long-held view that dehumanization is the cause of cruelty is wrong.

At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all.

And

If the worst acts of cruelty aren’t propelled by dehumanization, not all dehumanization is accompanied by cruelty. Manne points out that there’s nothing wrong with a surgeon viewing her patients as mere bodies when they’re on the operating table; in fact, it’s important for doctors not to have certain natural reactions—anger, moral disgust, sexual desire—when examining patients.

In fact, it is sometimes not the “evil” people, but the masses that dehumanize:

Early psychological research on dehumanization looked at what made the Nazis different from the rest of us. But psychologists now talk about the ubiquity of dehumanization. Nick Haslam, at the University of Melbourne, and Steve Loughnan, at the University of Edinburgh, provide a list of examples, including some painfully mundane ones: “Outraged members of the public call sex offenders animals. Psychopaths treat victims merely as means to their vicious ends. The poor are mocked as libidinous dolts. Passersby look through homeless people as if they were transparent obstacles. Dementia sufferers are represented in the media as shuffling zombies.”

Progress

I feel like I write many posts on progress, but here is one of the more harrowing articles in the past week (via Gizmodo), featuring polio and people who still rely on iron lungs:

Martha Lillard spends half of every day with her body encapsulated in a half-century old machine that forces her to breathe. Only her head sticks out of the end of the antique iron lung. On the other side, a motorized lever pulls the leather bellows, creating negative pressure that induces her lungs to suck in air.

In 2013, the Post-Polio Health International (PHI) organizations estimated that there were six to eight iron lung users in the United States. Now, PHI executive director Brian Tiburzi says he doesn’t know anyone alive still using the negative-pressure ventilators. This fall, I met three polio survivors who depend on iron lungs. They are among the last few, possibly the last three.

But what about before we had polio vaccines:

Children under the age of five are especially susceptible. In the 1940s and 1950s, hospitals across the country were filled with rows of iron lungs that kept victims alive. Lillard recalls being in rooms packed with metal tubes—especially when there were storms and all the men, women, adults, and children would be moved to the same room so nurses could manually operate the iron lungs if the power went out. “The period of time that it took the nurse to get out of the chair, it seemed like forever because you weren’t breathing,” Lillard said. “You just laid there and you could feel your heart beating and it was just terrifying. The only noise that you can make when you can’t breathe is clicking your tongue. And that whole dark room just sounded like a big room full of chickens just cluck-cluck-clucking. All the nurses were saying, ‘Just a second, you’ll be breathing in just a second.’”

This is yet another reminder of the immense amount of progress that society has made even in the recent past. I’ve written previously, “…many problems of the past we now don’t ever think about—the diseases that have been conquered, a scientific understanding of the world, advances in healthcare, access to modern technology, democratic society, much lower chance to be murdered, not taking months to communicate with someone on a different continent, instantaneously looking up information from the sum total of human knowledge from a device in your pocket, and so forth.” The fact that the problem is gone is precisely what makes it attractive. This is why anti-vaxxers are not scared of disease, why young people are not afraid of communism, why people want to go back to being hunter-gatherers, why people who have never seen a war are excited to go to war.

It’s hard to argue with certain groups that society has made progress, despite all the plain evidence lying around us. This is certainly one reason—we never stop to think about all the problems that have already been solved.

Heliocentrism

Copernican_theory.png

I never thought I’d be writing about how Earth orbits the Sun, but here is one of the most thought-provoking articles, on precisely that. The argument is that the popular story of “People thought everything orbited Earth, and then Copernicus figured out it was the other way, and by the way, people were very resistant to change so nobody believed him for a while until Newton appeared,” is wrong. Namely, if we threw a modern-day rationalist in the time, our rationalist might, even with the evidence, side with what everyone else generally thought and not the Copernican theory.

I generally agree with the argument though there is a lot of oversimplification that is at times misleading. In particular, the way the author cites the Coriolis effect in response to the “tower argument” is extremely misleading. In addition, I do agree that the author’s account is “less wrong” than the 1-paragraph popular account (so it certainly fits with the website), but the author fails to apply the “less wrong” mentality to the astronomical models in question. The basic argument is that the (old) Ptolemaic model was wrong, and the Copernican model was also wrong. But the point is that the Copernican model was less wrong (the author admits “Ptolemy’s system had required huge epicycles, and Copernicus was able to substantially reduce their size”), and to claim that they are equally wrong is really really wrong!

Still, the author poses two very good questions:

  1. If you lived in the time of the Copernican revolution, would you have accepted heliocentrism?
  2. How should you develop intellectually, in order to become the kind of person who would have accepted heliocentrism during the Copernican revolution?

To (1), I would suspect no with very high probability, because few people at the time would have known enough mathematics and astronomy to even understand the debate in question. But if  it’s not a “random person” and it specifies that I know enough math to understand, then it’s still not clear. Even if I thought the data were in favor of heliocentrism, would I dare defy religious authority in writing?

As for (2), you would need to both know enough advanced math to know what you’re even debating in the first place (how many people do you personally know could do this even today?), and have a strong disregard for authority. Other than that, I agree with the author that it would have been very hard to be someone who actually supported heliocentrism at the time.

Even today the question is not obvious. If you kept all other knowledge of science and just forgot astronomy, which theory would you believe (based on first principle and not data)? It might be impossible to say, though there could be some version of an argument where you know most of our energy today is generated via fossil fuels, which eventually got their energy from plant photosynthesis which came from the Sun, and combined with other things like solar power, infer that the Sun must provide a lot more energy than the Earth, and therefore the Sun must be much more massive. And then apply center of gravity to that. But it’s still not obvious.

In addition, even assuming everything in the article to be true, the narrative of science winning over dogma is still the same. The winning just didn’t happen until later (Kepler & Newton, rather than Copernicus).

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