Desiderata #3: links and commentary
False memories, aliens, and the observational turn
1. This last month The Intrinsic Perspective published:
Humans see p-zombies everywhere: What LaMDA shows about our snap judgements of consciousness
From AI to abortion, the scientific failure to understand consciousness harms the nation: Scientific gaps have become political and ethical ones
2. Psychology as a science has long been in a replication crisis: I cannot count the number of famous experiments I learned about in college that simply do not replicate. Ego depletion, behavioral priming, the Stanford Prison Experiment, even the Dunning-Kruger effect has failed to replicate. But guess what does replicate? And with flying colors? In fact, with an effect that’s stronger than the original studies? That false memories are incredibly easy to create. Specifically, in the study over 50% of participants ended up believing that they had been lost in the mall as a child, despite this being a false memory that the researchers merely suggested to them (although only 14% claimed to explicitly recall the false memory themselves). It is a bit disheartening that one of the few results in modern psychology which really holds up is that humans are natural confabulators who will make up memories at the drop of a hat with minimal verbal suggestion. All the researchers had to do was mix in a little bit of truth about the participants’ childhoods (which they got from their families) into the lie of the false memory. This effect is probably what caused the panic in the 1980s about child abuse involving satanic rituals which therapists supposedly uncovered via “repressed memory therapy,” a panic which swept the nation and broke tens of thousands of families apart—and yet, in retrospect, it is widely regarded as having never happened at all (i.e., thousands of people were totally wrong about their own experiences, which had been merely suggested to them). The fact that false-memory implantation by verbal suggestion is so easy, and one of the few results in psychology that replicates well, is not a very comforting thought.
3. Lex Fridman released a four-hour podcast with Robin Hanson, and they overview my favorite part of Hanson’s recent work, which is his “grabby aliens” model. I’ve disagreed with some of Hanson’s specific predictions around “ems” (brain emulations) which I think are basically just wonkish sci-fi. However, he is an interesting and original thinker in many areas. His “grabby aliens” model is, I think, the best simple explanation for the Fermi paradox I’ve heard. His model, as I understand it, answers the question via a kind of anthropic principle, based on the assumption that aliens will be “grabby” (take an expanding sphere of spacetime and change it, build stuff, terraform planets, etc). What follows from this assumption is that no civilization evolves independently within a “sphere of influence” of grabby aliens (they just change stuff too much). So, by definition, if you are an emerging civilization like ourselves, you have to find yourself outside a sphere of influence—i.e., there are no observers who both (a) are a starting civilization, and (b) see an alien civilization right there up in the sky. Those observers don’t exist because aliens are “grabby”—once you can see them close up, it’s too late. So the only observers left are those going “Hey, where is anyone?” Which is us.
4. I love when a single observation turns the world on its head.
So, a couple things about this observation: pigeons will definitely not automatically be “sweet and well-behaved” if you bring them home. But the claim that most pigeons we see are the descendants of once-domesticated pigeons is intriguing, and sort of changes the nature of the world (e.g., explaining why a NYC pigeon will plop down next to you on a park bench, which other birds do only rarely and with far less panache). According to a cursory examination, this appears to be correct:
Feral pigeons bear striking genetic resemblance to homing pigeons, supporting the idea that most feral pigeons trace their origins to homing pigeons that either did not find their way home, or were sired by homing pigeons.
Maybe everyone knew this, but I didn’t know most pigeons you see on the street are descendants of the domesticated kind—I thought they were related in some other way. There should be a literary term for this sort of “observational turn” wherein the world is made anew. And I think ending on this sort of note is the pinnacle of aesthetics in the essay itself (too bad this was merely a Tweet). That is, the best essays have a prestige stage wherein it is revealed that the world is different than you thought—and, in the best of cases, that even this particular essay is different than you thought. Some great examples of “observational turns” come from the Karl Ove Knausgaard’s essays in his Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn collection, wherein he describes the world to his future child, who has obviously never seen the world. But he describes it strange, and so the essays always begin with some mundane observation and title, like “Pipes,” which starts:
Pipes transport flowing liquids. . . Characteristic of pipes is that they are round, they are hollow and they are open at both ends.
and yet ends with:
That our body is filled with liquids, and that our life depends on the distribution of these liquids from one organ to the other, through thousands of little pipes which vary in size from the tube-like intestines to the capillaries of the brain, and that all life, even the most primitive of trees, is coursed through by pipes in this manner, makes the principle of the pipe perhaps the most important of life’s requirements, and humankind akin to the reed.
5. Litverse discusses why Calvin & Hobbes (which I grew up reading and loving) was never commercialized like other popular comic strips. Commercialization, it’s argued, is like an afterlife for intellectual property. E.g., consider the new Star Wars hotel at Disney, which is a kind of afterlife of the Star Wars franchise. The hotel is also a form of “LARPing” (live-action role playing), which is analogous to child’s play, which the author reminisces of:
Every day after school, I went to my friend’s house. We raced to the barn in his backyard, grabbed sticks, and thrashed the air. We decapitated goblins, kobolds, dragons, ogres, trolls, harpies, wizards. We often came home covered in ticks, nettle welts, and gouges from hay bales.
Dear reader, I was the friend.
6. Darshana Narayanan wrote a well-circulated piece in Current Affairs calling Yuval Noah Harari a fraud. Her evidence? Inaccuracies in his first book Sapiens. But only really three minor points in the book (one merely mixing up cheetahs and leopards in a single sentence). From my reading, none of the supposed errors impact the thrust of the book, and most are only debatably errors (except maybe the cheetah/leopard thing). At a certain point in the essay it becomes clear that she simply disagrees with his politics, and finds him to be a “dangerous populist” (AFAIK his politics are mainly pro-neoliberalism and pro-globalism).
It’s a shame of a piece, because there is a much more subtle and accurate essay that could be written about Harari, called something like “All popular scientific books are wrong, but some are useful.” The simple truth is that no popular science book is really, fully, true—but the same holds for textbooks and papers as well. You think the average scientific paper is correct in its totality? 100% of it? I have bad news. Instead, what books offer is a perspective. I wrote in part about this subject, and Harari’s Sapiens, in “Why do most popular science books suck?” last year.
7. I never would have thought that my life would be bounded by plagues. But if I had to bet on catastrophes in the future, plague is now incredibly high on the list. So I was not reassured to read that scientists have now shown it is indeed easy to create the smallpox virus from mere DNA sequences—and note that some scientists have pushed for exactly this case, for the smallpox blueprint to be widely and freely available, because, ah, science requires open communication!
As a scientist I have to say: I find it disturbing that science never seems to put any limits on the knowledge it seeks. And the community has a not-so-great record of policing itself. I wrote about some of those policing failures last year in “Publish and Perish,” when I discussed how scientists making new synthetic viruses merely for high-prestige publications are playing the Science Game—and how this might (no one knows for sure) have led to a lab leak of COVID-19.
More and more I think science, as it grows into its god-like power, needs stricter public oversight, rather than less. There should be research areas that are verboten.
8. The aptly named Blog Prize, which plans to give out money to blogs and newsletters, is still doing contests every month, giving away $1,000 to multiple essays which are all responses to particular questions, like “Is this the most important century?” It’s a good opportunity for online writers. And it shows how different writing online still is compared to the traditional publishing industry—a $1,000 prize for a short story in an obscure literary magazine would get 1,000 entries, but the same for a blog post gets like 10 entries.