Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Third-wave rationalism is here

An ongoing thread in the 2016 presidential election has been the remarkable increase in public coverage of conspiracy theories. Modern politics has always been rife with fuzzy thinking and disingenuous, opportunistic strategy, but this year wrongness seems to be front-and-center in a way that I haven't witnessed before.

Much of this is due to Donald Trump's unique candidacy--he genuinely seems to have a penchant for conspiracy theories--and his influence has percolated the social machinery of the election.

Another associated factor that's amplifying coverage of conspiracy theory-type topics is the simple structural fact that Trump is losing badly, meaning potential game-changers are by definition less likely. When journalists consider the remaining set of occurrences that could still prove decisive--Clinton health secrets, a Wikileaks bombshell--they invariably run into conspiracy theories lying in wait.

In all likelihood elites will return to the norm of truthiness after Trump's loss, and life will go on. But the fact remains that this election has revealed a stunning susceptibility to wrongness and conspiracy theory-style thinking in our population and institutions. The meme flowing through some Bernie Sanders supporters about a "rigged" primary process is especially concerning: millennials are supposed to be the most well-educated generation ever, and liberals like to regard themselves as being quite rational, scientific and open-minded.

People are drinking more Kool-Aid

It's become almost cliche to point out that humans are irrational decisionmakers in many ways. We rely on cognitive heuristics that worked pretty well evolutionarily, but which sometimes fail in modern information-processing situations. Probability, risk, and multicausal complex environments are notoriously difficult to assess without formal training and rigorous analysis.

But the boom-and-bust of pop psychology and mathematical social science has perhaps led to an overcompensation concerning rationality and intellectual rigor. This is somewhat apparent in various social justice circles, but I think looking at atheist culture best encapsulates the trend.

These days, lots of militant "New Atheists" have chilled-out considerably, shifting their focus to things like effective altruism. I have personally followed this track, de-emphasizing religion's metaphysical insanity and instead cultivating a deeper respect for its pragmatic social benefits.

But although a more thoughtful and complexity-loving attitude towards religion is probably correct in a certain sense, atheists do lose something by not incessantly shouting about rationality, evidence and skepticism. On a meta-level the tactical, structural effects of a relaxed lovefest atheism are very plausibly negative. Freddie deBoer beautifully hints at this dilemma in a recent essay:
I’m just trying to be real with you: I think far too many people who live in progressive urban enclaves and live online have developed this fantasy that angry atheists are as prevalent, powerful, and toxic as the worst elements of religion. And I just don’t think that’s an accurate portrayal of reality. If you live in the West Village and live a groovy boho lifestyle (which is nice, I’m not knocking it), you could easily look at Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris saying ugly, ignorant, Islamophobic things on Twitter and say to yourself “these guys are just as bad.” But live in rural Kansas for awhile. Try Mississippi. Try growing up gay in fundamentalist parts of Utah. You will quickly be disabused of that notion.
The atheist quandary mirrors a 'third-wave vs second-wave' dynamic sometimes seen within other social movements, whereby a hands-off, individualistic attitude is critiqued by the reclarification of first wave principles oriented around systemic effects.

Certain tiny movements like Less Wrong (with their sequences and obsessive focus) are great, and have dutifully kept the rationalism flame alive. But education and mass culture are now primed for a rebalancing, having drifted too far away from the sorts of practical, actionable thinking methods that stem the tide of wrongness and conspiracy theory. It's not enough to just sit back and quietly snark.

Actively pushing rationalism these days is gauche and tedious (which is why it declined in the first place!), but I predict a necessary resurgence will start bubbling up before too long. The stakes are simply too high. I mean, come on, conspiracy theories are fucking stupid and people should know better.

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