Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success | Slate Star Codex

Source: Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success | Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander

RE: Tradition is Smarter Than You Are | The Scholar’s Stage (book review of The Secret Of Our Success), by Tanner Greer

RE: The Secret Of Our Success, by anthropologist Joseph Henrich

“Culture is the secret of humanity’s success” sounds like the most vapid possible thesis. The Secret Of Our Success by anthropologist Joseph Henrich manages to be an amazing book anyway.

Henrich wants to debunk (or at least clarify) a popular view where humans succeeded because of our raw intelligence. In this view, we are smart enough to invent neat tools that help us survive and adapt to unfamiliar environments.

Against such theories: we cannot actually do this. Henrich walks the reader through many stories about European explorers marooned in unfamiliar environments. These explorers usually starved to death. They starved to death in the middle of endless plenty. Some of them were in Arctic lands that the Inuit considered among their richest hunting grounds. Others were in jungles, surrounded by edible plants and animals. One particularly unfortunate group was in Alabama, and would have perished entirely if they hadn’t been captured and enslaved by local Indians first.

Hunting and gathering is actually really hard.

Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?

Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.

Humans evolved to transmit culture with high fidelity. And one of the biggest threats to transmitting culture with high fidelity was Reason. Our ancestors lived in Epistemic Hell, where they had to constantly rely on causally opaque processes with justifications that couldn’t possibly be true, and if they ever questioned them then they might die. Historically, Reason has been the villain of the human narrative, a corrosive force that tempts people away from adaptive behavior towards choices that “sounded good at the time”.

Why are people so bad at reasoning? For the same reason they’re so bad at letting poisonous spiders walk all over their face without freaking out. Both “skills” are really bad ideas, most of the people who tried them died in the process, so evolution removed those genes from the population, and successful cultures stigmatized them enough to give people an internalized fear of even trying.


Epistemic Learned Helplessness | Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander
Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad | Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander

The Sea Was Not a Mask — Real Life

Source: The Sea Was Not a Mask — Real Life, by Rob Horning

Does more “extreme” content compel the most compulsive viewing, or are we only concerned with compulsive viewing when the content has antisocial overtones? In other words, when YouTube fine-tunes its algorithms, is it trying to end compulsive viewing, or is it merely trying to make people compulsively watch nicer things? … The idea that YouTube shouldn’t force-feed users content at all is, of course, not considered.

The assumption built into YouTube (and Netflix and Spotify and TikTok and all the other streaming platforms that queue more content automatically) is that users want to consume flow, not particular items of content. Flow and not content secures an audience to broker to advertisers. … [The compulsivity of flow] is so pervasive as to almost seem inescapable — from “page-turners” to bingeable shows to endlessly refreshable scrolls to autoplaying music and autopopulating playlists. It is usually depicted as a selling point, a proof of quality — you can’t put it down! — but that shouldn’t disguise the fact that what’s being sold is surrender: Engage with this thing so you can stop worrying about what to engage with. That is flow. … Flow allows us to experience our agency without exactly exercising it. It blurs the lines between those things.

Flow, fundamentally, is a trap — as anthropologist Nick Seaver details, that means it is a “persuasive technology” that can condition prey “to play the role scripted for it in its design.” Traps work, he argues, by making coercion appear as persuasion: Animals aren’t forced into the trap; its design makes them choose it. Coercion and persuasion, then, can’t be cleanly distinguished. … We are neither forced to consume more nor choosing to consume more; we both want the particular units of content and are indifferent to them. We are both active agents and passive objects. … Flow works by disguising its compulsory mechanism in the details of its content, which is nothing more than bait from the system’s perspective.

[Are] certain kinds of content are especially suited to this blurring? How do we become addicted to the spectacle of our consumption, as an emblem of our own singularity? Does it take particular kinds of content? Does certain kinds of antisocial content make that spectacle more potent and compulsive? Does pursuing information that other people reject or that seems hidden or secret intrinsically make the pursuer aware of their own agency, of their ability to redraw the epistemic frame?

Value Differences As Differently Crystallized Metaphysical Heuristics | Slate Star Codex

Source: Value Differences As Differently Crystallized Metaphysical Heuristics | Slate Star Codex, by Scott Alexander

We need to navigate complicated philosophical questions in order to decide how to act, what to do, what behaviors to incentivize, what behaviors to punish, what signals to send, and even how to have a society at all. Sometimes we can use theories from science and mathematics to explicitly model how a system works and what we want from it. But even the scholars who understand these insights rarely know exactly how to objectively apply them in the real world. Yet anyone who lives with others needs to be able to do these things; not just scholars but ordinary people, children, and even chimpanzees. So sometimes we use heuristics and approximations.

Some examples:

EXPLICIT MODEL: Trying to count how many calories and milligrams of each nutrient you get
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Feeling hungry or full
REIFIED ESSENCE: Some foods are inherently healthy or unhealthy
ENDORSED VALUE: Insisting on only eating organic foods even when those foods have no quantifiable benefit over nonorganic

People can choose metaphysical heuristics or explicit models based on their own innate tendencies, their education, their intelligence, their experiences, and what kind of question we’re thinking about. Rather than talking too much about fundamental value differences, we should be asking where a given person has chosen to place themselves on the metaphysical-heuristic-to-explicit-model ladder at any particular moment.

Since most metaphysical heuristics are a stand-in for something real, we should expect blocs of allied people to contain some people who want the real thing, and other people who are running metaphysical heuristics that point at the thing.

My guess is a lot of people fluidly move back and forth between these levels, just as I would expect people who are very interested in only eating organic food to also be more likely to care about what percent RDA of vitamins are in their food. This isn’t sinister, or a reason to think that people are only claiming consequentialist arguments for their heuristics. It’s just a natural consequences of the way our values get produced and the fuzziness in everybody’s value system.

Complicating the Narratives – The Whole Story

Source: Complicating the Narratives – The Whole Story

What if journalists covered controversial issues differently — based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious? … The idea is to revive complexity in a time of false simplicity.

How did you come to have your political views?

Haidt identifies six moral foundations that form the basis of political thought: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

What is dividing us?
How should we decide?
How did you come to that?
What is oversimplified about this issue?
How has this conflict affected your life?
What do you think the other side wants?
What’s the question nobody is asking?

listen not just to what [people] say — but to their “gap words,” or the things that they don’t say.

listen for specific clues or “signposts,” which are usually symptoms of deeper, hidden meaning. Signposts include words like “always” or “never,” any sign of emotion, the use of metaphors, statements of identity, words that get repeated or any signs of confusion or ambiguity. When you hear one of these clues, identify it explicitly and ask for more.

double check — give the person a distillation of what you thought they meant and see what they say.

A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue – The Atlantic

Source: A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue – The Atlantic, by Conor Friedersdorf

We sometimes think of political issues in binary terms. Is someone pro-life or pro-choice? But most individuals hold views that are more complicated than a binary can capture.

An alternative is to describe a given position on a spectrum. On abortion, an outright ban sits at one extreme; at the other is the elimination of all restrictions on the procedure. In between are a staggering array of coherently distinguishable positions.

There’s a different set of frames, though, that are as relevant as binaries and spectrums, though they are less familiar and less discussed: equilibriums and limits.

Most political stances can be understood in terms of an equilibrium. For instance, some people might believe that access to abortion in a conservative state is too restricted under the status quo, and favor relaxing the rules regulating abortion clinics. That is, they might favor shifting the equilibrium in a “pro-choice” direction.

But ask those same voters, “Should there be any limits on legal abortion?” and they might declare that the procedure should be banned in the last trimester of pregnancy unless the mother’s health is threatened. Insofar as the abortion debate is framed around the equilibrium, they will align with the pro-choice movement; but insofar as it is framed around limits, they will align with the pro-life movement.

On abortion and scores of other political issues, there are people who tend to focus on equilibriums, other people who tend to focus on limits, and still others who vary in their focus. A single question put to the public cannot reveal the majority position of the polity on such issues, because there are at least two different majority coalitions: One forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit.