Week 9, Gene Expression Book Club, Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom

The armies of the Taiping and Imperial forces race to and fro, to and fro. To say that this part of the narrative does not feel linear to me is understating the issue.  Much of the action continues to be centered on the lower Yangzi, but there are some deviations. This section of the book would benefit from maps. Lots of maps.

The key thing that stands out for me is the victories or losses. We already know the Taiping are going to lose. The question is how. But the brutality on all sides. And honor as well. An Imperial office is offered a position with the Taiping, he refuses and eventually is allowed to go back to his own side. Then, they execute him on suspicion of being a traitor. Captured soldiers are routinely massacred. Imperial generals berate their subordinates for not being brutal enough.

The chapter ends with a victory for the Imperial forces under Zeng Guofan despite a long night of the soul in various parts. The captured city has turned to cannibalism, and the civilians are mostly slaughtered because they had sided with the Taiping. The generals leading the Imperial side seem to justify their lack of mercy. Victory is a hard thing. But the fact that they write down justifications indicates that they’re not totally at peace with the brutality.

Week 8, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

Hitler was a follower, not a leader. That’s the primary message of chapter 8. I find many of the arguments in this chapter about how demagogues and prophets persuade and lead on point, but I do wonder as to whether they’re truly insightful or counterintuitive in any way. Hugo Mercier cites evidence that Adolf Hitler was very careful about where and how to push the German public in the lead-up to the seizure of power by the Nazis (yes, he toned down some of the anti-Semitism). Mercier also points out that Christian attempts to impose morals and orthodoxy on people have usually failed. It turns out people have a mind of their own, and they often ignore what their social betters or leaders demand from them. In fact he argues that successful populists are nothing more those who are at the right time and place, personifying a mood in the populace and running with that.

The main question I would have here goes back to Hitler: this crazy evil guy sent Germany to the funeral pyre in World War II. Though I take his point, and agree with it, I think Mercier also underestimates how collective manias can grip people. Or, more precisely, he seems to dismiss that these were manias. Perhaps the Germans wanted to invade Russia! Perhaps they wanted to turn into a racial eugenics state!

Second, I think the more and more I read about it the impact of religions such as Christianity are on the margin. Most peasants remained rural pagans in their practices, but organized public paganism disappeared, and their practices and views slowly shifted. Mercier cites the 13th century, but from what I know there were major reform movements in the late medieval period, and of course during the Reformation and the counter-reaction from the Catholics.

The overall message that people have a mind of their own is mostly correct. But I think the exceptions really matter over the long term. So, no Hitler, no Holocaust.

Week 7, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

A major argument in Not Born Yesterday is that humans are more rational on an individual level than you think. It’s kind of an inversion of books that came out in the late 2000’s, such as Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

The major topic in chapter 7 is “social and emotional contagion.” The examples to illustrate this phenomenon are often silly, like outbreaks of laughing at high schools, or less silly, such as suicide. Oftentimes something like yawning is given as evidence of social contagion. The major point that Hugo Mercier makes is that

  1. The evidence is not always that compelling in magnitude (e.g., a lot of people don’t yawn, and yawning is often triggered by social distance so that total strangers don’t elicit imitation)
  2. The contagion is often limited to subcultures

The bigger issue seems to be the utilization of the term “contagion.” As we’re living through COVID-19 we don’t need to be told that the analogy fails when the transmission is low, and highly constrained by social variables of group similarity. For example, if contagion only happens with upper-middle-class teenage girls, it is not trivial, but obviously, there is a limit to the spread and effectiveness of the analogy. Just because a 13-year-old girl does something doesn’t mean that you will take this person as a model of emulation.

You use your brain and roll your eyes.

Not Born Yesterday seems to be an extended argument that specific results do not generalize and hold as strongly as their public presentation. On this ground it’s hard to disagree with, though again, you rely on Mercier’s interpretation of the literature.

Week 6, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

“Who To Trust?” That’s the title of chapter 6 of Not Born Yesterday, and this has a very Robert Triver’s vibe (e.g., his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life). With the subtitle “The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe,” I kind of wonder why this chapter exists, since much of the material is implicit across the earlier chapters.

Basically, we trust those who have an incentive to be truthful. We trust people with expertise. We trust people who are confident…but once someone is wrong, we trust those who were more provisional and less confident. Humans have a host of heuristics and cues to figure out who is less likely to lie.

Not surprisingly, the chapter throws cold water on the idea that scientists have a good analytic understanding of cues so that liars and cheats can be easily detected. None of the metrics and expressions seem to have passed peer review. Rather, the problem with lying is that it takes effort and deception is hard to maintain in terms of coherency and consistency. Liars trip up because it’s hard work, they don’t exhibit subtle physical clues (well, they might, but not well enough to turn it into a consistently applied system of detection).

A key concept in the book is vigilence. The gullible dodos are exceptions, not the rule. I do wonder about social differences due to cultural conditions, implied and hinted at in this chapter. People in WEIRD and high-trust societies are presumably less vigilant. A friend told me years ago Mormons made bad politicians in Congress because their peers always lied to their faces, and they simply never expected it. Mormon culture is high-trust, and lying in a brazen manner is not socially acceptable, so these individuals were not vigilant for it.

Week 5, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of the Crowds came out in 2005. The basic insight is groups of people are often much more accurate than individuals. Not Born Yesterday accepts this finding, but chapter 5, “Who Knows Best,” punches back against overreading the result in all domains.

Wisdom of the Crowds came out in a decade when all sorts of cool psychology and neuroscience books were being published. Counterintuitive stuff that was entertaining sold (e.g., Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide). That was before the replication crisis, and it turned out that a lot of the counterintuitive results were one-off’s and not general results. The 2010’s became the decade of boring psychology due to a correction against this pattern.

In this chapter, Hugo Mercier starts coming through on his claim that we’re not that gullible. People go along with the crowd, but not unreasonably so. The famous experiments that show conformity are actually not as illuminating as they’ve been made out to be. People know very well which line is longer, they just admit that they conform in public. And even then, most people refuse to conform. Preschoolers are aware of expertise. They know that doctors know more about plants, while mechanics know more about how to fix a toy. They trust adult judgment in things adults presumably can understand, but not where their opinions shouldn’t be weighted (e.g., children see that the adult has no more information than they do).

Humans are OK at weighing expertise, and gauging a sense when majority opinion can likely be right (e.g., situations when errors are independent and random). When you tell people that the majority went along with a particularly charismatic person, they discount the majority consensus.

Week 8, Gene Expression Book Club, Autumn In The Heavenly Kingdom

The summer palace of the Chinese emperor is burned down, and all of Europe is outraged! Well, perhaps not all of Europe, but the most surprising aspect of this chapter to me is the reaction of the British establishment. Rather than being jingoistic, with exceptions, they seem ambivalent to opposed to the aggressive actions of Lord Elgin. This, despite the reality that the European prisoners were truly ill-treated by the Chinese when in their authority.

I suppose this makes me realize again that I tend to see people from an earlier period as bigoted and blood-thirsty when in reality they had morals just like us. These were the British who after all abolished the slave trade, despite their economic interests.

Much of the rest of the chapter is focused on where it should be, on China. The emperor has fled, and his brother is left holding the bag in Beijing. This is a dynasty without virtue at the head. There is great power politics, and possible aid from Russia, along with foreign mercenaries. It’s amusing to read about the Chinese evaluation of Americans as “pure and honest.” How things have changed.

Much of the latter portion of the chapter was hard for me to follow, in that it alludes to the complicated and confused impressions of the Taiping by the rebels, and various diplomatic efforts involving Europeans, Taiping, and the Manchus. Additionally, there seem to be a fair number of European freelancers operating between the various groups.

Total and utter chaos. No one seems to know what’s going on.

Week 4, Gene Expression Book Club – Not Born Yesterday

Chapter 4 of Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe is titled “What to Believe.” You could retitle it “Let’s get Bayesian.” The author basically outlines the reality that people do “plausibility checking” on new information, matching it up to their prior beliefs, and updating based on the credibility of the source or the persuasiveness of the information.

But first, I need to mention that he talks about the “backfire effect”. This is basically the counter-intuitive finding that when presenting disconfirming evidence your beliefs actually get stronger. I first encountered this in 2003 in In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. But the public is more familiar with Nyhan et al. and its relevance to political science. That is, arguments that should falsify a position only make people more convinced in that position. I’ve heard that this is probably highly overstated, and Not Born Yesterday gets in that. In a replication study of the backfire effect, it turns out that only 1 out of 30 cases replicated. Though there is probably something there, it’s not nearly as big of a deal as psychologists were making out in the 2000’s.

And that’s good. In chapter 4 the author points out that new information that makes your worldview more coherent is immediately absorbed and understood. Additionally, when people are given time to reason or discuss, topics then they tend to converge on a more accurate perspective. The major lesson of this chapter seems to be that though there are instances of biased reasoning or irrationality, on the whole people actually do move toward true beliefs when given the chance and when they make an effort.

Of course, there are cases when collective intuition can lead one astray. The author gives Creationism as an example. Basically, these are cases where the issues are abstruse, and normal humans are flying blind.

Week 3, Gene Expression book club

Readers have been complaining about Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. The issue is that there’s no “there, there.” The author hasn’t really dug into the meat of his arguments, and everything was pretty thin and cursory in the first and second chapters. The third chapter is different.

He reviews the literature that people are gullible, that stupid people are gullible, that children are gullible. And he finds them all wanting. For example, he reviews and dismisses the literature on brainwashing and subliminal messaging. This is fine as far as it goes, from what I know these are not real things, but more public panics. I’m not sure that that is the strongest argument against gullibility.

In contrast, the idea of an evolutionary “arms race” between communicators and communicated speaks more to why we are not gullible. In evolutionary arms races, such as with disease, the two competitors tend to stay in place. Ultimately the equilibrium is maintained. This is obviously not the case for human communication. Rather, there’s a lot of evolutionary theory which suggests that there is a “ratchet” of increased complexity and richness of our cultural repertoire that emerges from social communication. If gullibility was so pervasive, it should have been selected against in this environment. Gullible people are marks.

The other angle that this chapter takes is to attack the relevance of “system 1” and “system 2” thinking that was popularized by Daniel Kahneman in books such as Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow (system 1 and 2 respectively). System 1 is fast, but subject to cognitive biases (it can be deceived), while system 2 is slow, but analysis takes time. One of the implications of this is that more analytical people, who rely on system 2, will be less gullible. I won’t go into the detail, but Not Born Yesterday presents an interpretation of this literature that suggests that gullibility again is not at play here. In fact, the authors suggest that system 2 itself can be easy to deceive or come to the wrong conclusion quite often. In fact, I kept thinking of the author’s previous book, The Enigma of Reason, which presents some arguments for why system 2 originally emerged.

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Week 2, Gene Expression book club

The second chapter of Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe is short. Much of it is re-warmed evolutionary biology, with a focus on ethology. If you’ve read Amotz Zahavi’s The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle or Dugatkin & Reeve’s Game Theory and Animal Behavior this will be a quick and easy chapter. Basically, the issue being explored here is that social cognition and conformity run up against the fact that there is an incentive to “cheat”, and communication is a two-way street.

Zahavi was the 20th century’s most eloquent expositor of the “handicap principle.” The idea that you need “hard-to-fake” signals to accurately convey information. So, for example, huge antlers are honest signals of robustness and genetic health, even though they are nonfunctional, and reduce individual fitness (it’s easier to find and catch animals with antlers). The idea that people are gullible and credulous in terms of communication and information processing runs afoul of the reality that communicators are incentivized to deceive you to optimize their own fitness (or, just “free rider” off communication altruism of conspecifics).

The strangest part of this chapter is that Mercier threw in a reference to Haig’s theories about mother-offspring genetic conflict due to different life-history incentives. The mother is optimized to not invest too much into the fetus so that resources are left for future offspring, while the fetus is incentivized to extract as much as possible (within reason; the offspring is related to future progeny, though in most mammals that might be 0.25 and not 0.50). All this is true, and it’s a robust area of science, but I thought this chapter would have benefited from more discussion of ethology and behavior, and less on evolutionary genetics.

Basically, the takehome here is that the gullible should be selected against…

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Week 1, Gene Expression book club

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe starts rather quickly and succinctly out of the gate. The author reviews the extant literature and folk wisdom that humans are gullible, and not suspicious of people trying to swindle them. To a great extent, this is the mainstream view now, with the emergence of the “heuristics and biases” literature, and the field of “cultural evolution” which is rooted in the idea of social cognition.

Social cognition basically means instead of thinking things through yourself you allow the community to decide. As a hadith states, the Ummah shall not agree upon an error. It’s cheap, easy, and good enough. But, this reliance on community means that irrational herds can erupt, and the opportunity arises for ‘cheaters’ to game these systems of information flow (think ‘affinity scams’).

The first chapter of Not Born Yesterday is a capsule of the view not taken in this book, so I assume the best is yet to come.

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