Personal Development, Society

What is altruism and what should it be?

When we define altruism as placing someone else’s interests, or the interests of society, above our own interests – when we make it about sacrifice or even self-abnegation – we make it sound pretty difficult. We don’t encourage many people to believe they can be altruists.

But if we define altruism as a broadening of the concept of self-interest, so that the sphere of what we see as benefiting the self is expanded to include what benefits others and society, then altruism becomes more approachable. People can grow into altruism by considering the reciprocity of benefit: if I do something that benefits you, I too will benefit in some way, so it’s a “win-win.”

The critical distinction is whether we conceive of reciprocity from a scarcity mindset or from an abundance mindset. From a scarcity mindset, we might say: OK, if I’m going to give something, I have to be absolutely sure of what I’m going to get in return. My reward must be something tangible and I must know when and how I’m going to receive it, and in what quantity. Otherwise I won’t take the risk.

But from an abundance mindset, we might say, OK, I’m going to give something, and I’m going to have faith that I will get something in return, but I don’t know when I will get it, or what form it will take, or how much it’s going to be, or where it’s going to come from. I’m going to keep giving in many different situations over time. And in one particular situation, the thing I get in return might be nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing I did something good to help someone else. Will this always be an even trade? Maybe not. Perhaps the intangible satisfaction of doing good won’t be all that thrilling to me in one particular case. But I have plenty already. And I’m willing to take a risk, since I trust that my “loss” in any one circumstance will be outweighed by my “gain” in another.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for short-term loss, and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy. It’s a kind of optimism about how prosocial behavior will unfold over time – not expecting too much reward from any particular instance of this behavior – but believing that the reward will be great eventually. It’s a long-term investment in karma.

But that doesn’t seem to be the full picture, because it misses the concept of empathy and allows too much room for greed.

Someone might donate a million dollars to a charity, then brag about it. Are they an altruist? Perhaps they did it as a tax write-off. The donation might have been an act of greed if they only wanted a financial benefit and prestige to boot. If they didn’t really care about what the charity was going to do with their money and they weren’t thinking about the people who would benefit from the charity’s work, then the answer is no. Yes, it’s still good that the donation happened, but no, to accept this donor as an altruist would be to devalue the concept. It seems that a person should only get to be called an altruist if their actions are heartfelt – the person has to care about others in addition to being willing to perform the motions of assisting others.

But we’re wrong if we take an example like this and use it to conclude that any action taken in one’s own self-interest cannot be genuinely altruistic at the same time.

Consider a person who looks around a city street and notices a tourist needing directions, then stops to help, even though this delay is going to make them late to an important business meeting. It would seem that this Good Samaritan has sacrificed something, in a way that brings no concrete gain to themselves, so their action might qualify as truly altruistic according to the traditional definition of selfless behavior that benefits someone else. The person saw the stranger in distress, thought about what it’s like to be lost in an unfamiliar city, thought about how we must be kind to each other to make the world a better place, and so they elevated the stranger’s interests above their own.

But if we look closer here we can see that an expectation of reciprocity does come into play, even in this “pure” act of kindness. Helping a stranger made the Good Samaritan feel good. They could imagine the positive outcome they created and savor it. They could feel they had been useful. They could feel they had behaved in a way consistent with their own values, obeying the Golden Rule. They could feel they had set a positive example. They could feel they had done their duty. They could remember the tourist’s smile. So in a sense, the Good Samaritan gained something significant – a whole constellation of positive emotions. And those emotions were arguably more valuable than being on time to the meeting. There was still a “transaction” that happened here, albeit a loose and open one instead of a tight and fussy one.

Is it even right to say that the Good Samaritan made a sacrifice? Well, they sacrificed one thing for another thing. They sacrificed being on time – perhaps their entire reputation for punctuality – for the good feelings that come with kindness. Those two things are incommensurate but if we were forced to compare them, we might say the person came out better in the end for choosing kindness. We could even say the person behaved in a “selfish” way since they prioritized the positive feelings they would get from helping the stranger over the concerns of others at the meeting who were expecting that the meeting could start on time. It’s also true that the Good Samaritan wanted to avoid the bad feeling they would have gotten by ignoring the stranger and knowing they had been unhelpful. That pain of moral failure was more significant to the Good Samaritan than the pain of being late and disappointing their colleagues. So by helping the stranger, they got the specific pleasure they wanted and avoided the specific pain they didn’t want, all while ignoring the displeasure of many others who were waiting. 

Does this make the Good Samaritan truly selfish? They are selfish in the sense that they have a self. But the nature of the pleasure they sought and the nature of the pain they tried to avoid are critical to how we interpret their behavior. Here, the pleasure and pain are proxies for their belief in goodness. Their emotions can be seen as manifestations of their belief in goodness and so by being swayed by these emotions they were being swayed by goodness itself. If that makes them “selfish” then we’re making the term “selfish” too broad to be meaningful.

These examples are meant to show that there are many ways we can benefit when we help others. In the first example, the benefit of a tax write-off and bragging rights seems hollow and makes us conclude the act wasn’t truly altruistic. In the second example, we can accept that the Good Samaritan was manifesting altruism even though they got precisely what they wanted out of the deal.

What matters is that the Good Samaritan thought about the stranger’s situation and hoped to make it better. What matters too is that in doing this, they weren’t particular about what they’d receive in return, or how they’d receive it. They were ready to accept an intangible benefit as real and meaningful. And they took an “abundance” mindset that let them accept the risk of possibly receiving nothing in this particular case.

So altruism can be defined as a belief in the reciprocity of benefit, seen from an “abundance” perspective, with a high tolerance for the risk of short term “loss,” and a willingness to accept intangible future rewards as meaningful and worthy, all powered by empathy.

But why bother providing this lengthy definition of altruism? Certainly, it’s more complex than the simple idea of placing someone else’s interests above one’s own.

The reason is that definitions matter. How we define altruism affects how we see our ability to be altruists. Since altruistic behavior benefits all of us, we should want to promote it. And in order to do that, we should define it in a way that encourages everyone – ourselves and others – to believe we can practice it. Since many of us believe, deep down, that we’re usually going to make choices that benefit our own selves, it helps to frame altruism as a behavior that benefits our own selves, as long as we’re flexible about how and when that benefit might be realized.

But there’s a catch in this act of semantic reframing. The catch is that altruism benefits us by freeing us from ourselves, by removing us from the jail of self-concern. Part of the “reward” we receive when we behave altruistically is that we have the chance to think less about our own concerns, and that’s liberating. It’s a burden to have to look out for our own interests all the time. It’s a burden to have to maximize personal utility all the time. Altruistic behavior offers a relief from that… but only if we engage in altruism without expecting something in return. Only if altruism means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and focusing on their interests without worrying too much about ours.

If we position altruism as something that benefits the self, are we then compromising one of the key benefits it provides, which is the relief from dwelling on our own selves and what we’re going to get?

No, we are not compromising that benefit, because we are not expecting something tangible in return for altruistic behavior and we are not expecting an intangible reward to be provided in any specific amount on any specific schedule. We’re taking a broad, loose, expansive view of how we might benefit, relieving ourselves from the duty of tracking all the details. We are leaving it up to faith, or fate, to decide what happens next, trusting that it’ll be something good, if not now, then eventually.

In conclusion, altruism is a kind of optimism. It’s a positive expectation that we hold about the long-term outcome of investing in others’ wellbeing. We trust that we’ll benefit from doing this, but we release ourselves from the burden of tracking how and when we’ll benefit. We’re making a long-term investment in karma, without expecting that we can predict it or control it.

To believe that helping others helps us too – that’s a natural and good belief. We should let it motivate us. We should define altruism in a way that motivates us. Because we all need to become motivated altruists if life on our planet is to survive.

Food, Society

What are we shipping?

For anyone who’s even slightly health conscious, it’s easy to scoff at the junk food that fills a modern American supermarket, accumulating most thickly around the checkout counters. The image here is a quick snapshot I took at my local Shaw’s earlier today. It’s easy to hate the “evil” corporations that feed us this stuff, and it’s easy to feel sorry for, but also a bit disapproving of the people who readily consume it. Judgment is easy. But if we put judgment aside, there’s more to see here.

When I passed this kiosk today, looking at all those nicely wrapped goodies, my first thought was that someone had to design all that packaging. So I thought of my brother. My brother loved art growing up, so he went to school for graphic design, and worked in the field for many years, and he was really good at it; but later on, he struggled to find work. Opportunities came up and fell through. It seemed like no one was hiring. And even if they were hiring, they didn’t call back. If my brother’s dream had come true – and if our family’s dream for him had come true – if he’d gotten a really great job in his field, maybe he’d be working for a food company designing packaging.

So when I look at the display, I think – that’s the work of the people who got the job that my brother would have loved to have. They were the lucky ones. They went to school for packaging design, interviewed, had some success, got hired, showed up to work at 9 every morning, got assigned a project, and met the deadline, and maybe they did this while raising kids or taking care of elderly parents or dealing with personal health issues – they still prevailed and designed these packages including the logos and all the other text. They got the dimensions right, the colors, the spacing, everything. Revision one. Revision twenty. FINAL.

And someone had to formulate and manufacture the plastic that these products are wrapped in, and come up with a process for sealing the packages. First they had to get the job, and they did.

There were business analysts and product managers who did the research to figure out what would sell, and they got it right. Maybe they got bonuses for their accurate projections.

And there were marketing folks who made ads for this stuff, using their knowledge of psychology and communication to make people want it.

Someone said let’s call it “Foofy Puffs” and someone said “I think I like it!” and someone else said “No, it’s terrible!” and they had to work it out. Over many meetings. Maybe they stayed late at the office for this.

And there were food scientists and chemists who came up with the recipes and the right preservatives and colorings to mix in. These might have been folks who enjoyed cooking at an early age, but they liked science too, and then they saw a career opportunity in food science – perfect combination. Lucky them, they found a way to put their interests together and make a living at it. Dream job.

Someone had to source the ingredients, which meant establishing relationships with suppliers, negotiating prices, drafting contracts, reviewing contracts, signing contracts, managing delivery schedules, dealing with unexpected supply shortages, finding alternatives. Someone was really good at logistics and making puzzle pieces fit together and they got a job doing just that.

And someone had to manage the process of testing the food for nutritional content so the specs could be printed on the packaging.

And someone had to do quality assurance, making sure things were coming out right. Someone was really good anticipating problems and identifying defects and they found a way to put that skill to use.

And someone had to design and build out the industrial kitchens where the products are prepared. And people worked in those kitchens and someone managed them and someone managed that person, keeping their morale up, listening to frustrations, providing constructive feedback, establishing goals and a path for professional advancement. 

And someone had to manage the logistics of shipping the product from the kitchen to the warehouse and from there to the supermarket.

And when boxes of product arrived at the supermarket someone had to unload them and put them in the right place and unpack them and put the products up on the shelf. And someone had to watch the shelf and decide when to restock.

I’ve worked in business. I’ve helped businesses. I once tried to launch a startup of my own. I know how when you bring a large group of people together to do something complex – no matter what that thing is – it’s really a testament to teamwork and persistence and ingenuity and resilience when you meet your deadline, when you deliver, when you ship product. Because there are so many things standing in your way.

All this junk food is product that shipped. So in a way, it’s a testament to people being good at their jobs. Which means they showed up every day, harnessed their education, creativity, and personal strengths to overcome countless hurdles that stood in the way of shipping. Maybe they failed at first and then they did the work to get better and succeed the next time.

These were the “responsible” people, the “hard workers,” the folks who went to school and graduated and got “good” jobs and earned paychecks to support their families, to go on vacation once in a while, and save some money for the future. These were the folks who were lucky enough to have those opportunities. Opportunities that my brother struggled to find. And in exchange for that paycheck that they kept receiving, they kept doing everything that it took to ship. And they shipped. And they shipped again.

But look what they shipped. Look at what they shipped through the application of all that effort, skill, perseverance, and coordination. All those early mornings rushing to work, all those evenings commuting home in traffic.

They shipped food that’s bad for us.

And they put it in plastic wrappers that are bad for our environment, our home, our earth.

They harnessed their personal abilities and strengths to succeed in delivering something bad.

You could say they were just doing their jobs and just giving the market what it wanted, and no one has to buy it who doesn’t want it, but in the end they made something that doesn’t help anyone. They made something that doesn’t make the world a better place.

But the challenges facing our world are deep enough that if we’re going to meet them, we need teams of people working day and night with all their strength to ship solutions, as effectively as we’re shipping problems today. 

We’re all part of the society that enables the shipping of junk food – even if we don’t like it and don’t eat it. We pay the taxes that fund the schools and maintain the roads that allow people to grow up and commute to their adult jobs – if they’re lucky to find those jobs – so they can ship junk food. And we celebrate a person’s right to ship whatever they want, be it junk food or health food, guns or bandaids, bibles or blank notebooks – anything under the sun.

Without sacrificing that freedom, without bringing that freedom into question, we need a way to think collectively about what we’re shipping, because we can’t put so much effort into shipping problems, we can’t keep shipping problems forever, and at the same time expect our situation to improve. At some point we – the collective we – need to accept that our situation is a direct consequence of what we ship. The problems we face are the ones we shipped! The good news is that if we can ship something, we can ship something better.

AI, Criticism, Society

The Insult of AI Creativity

Why do we value creativity? Of course, we often don’t. Creativity may go unrecognized, or it may be perceived as a nuisance, a weird thing, a threat to authority and convention. But when we do value creativity, that’s not only because it delivers solutions to problems and because it supplies art, music, and prose we enjoy consuming. We value creativity because the practice of it, occasionally effortless, is often hard in a way that draws upon all our strengths and so helps us cultivate and show off the virtues we hold most dear.

To be creative you must have the virtue of open-mindedness, being flexible enough to overcome stereotypes and old habits so as to discover new ways of combining familiar materials, new ways of conceiving perennial challenges, new ways of imagining what’s achievable and how. You must have the virtue of energy, excitement, and passion, so that you would sketch out a dozen, a hundred, a thousand variations on an idea. You must have the virtue of persistence, so that you would sort through the options, trying things out, experimenting, tinkering, testing, all while most initiatives fail. You must have the virtue of patience and care, so that you would cultivate possibilities like seeds that don’t immediately sprout. You must have the virtue of independence, the willingness to pursue your curiosity in the absence of external validation. You must have the virtue of self-knowledge, understanding enough about your own perceptions, your own strengths and weaknesses, your own creative process to steer the ship. You must have the virtue of empathy, understanding other people and being able to imagine how they might experience what you produce. You must have the virtue of craftsmanship, knowing your materials well enough to use them to best effect. You must have the virtue of conviction, possessing something inside you that you yearn to express. You must have the virtue of bravery, a willingness to risk rejection or even ridicule. And you might have the virtue of altruism, which is to say that you’re willing to bear a great cost to create something that others might enjoy, independent of its benefit to you.

Now, a creative person might not manifest the full gamut of these virtues and such a person might be thoroughly nasty in other ways. But it is safe to say that great creative results are not achieved through rigid thinking, laziness, impatience, sheepishness, ignorance, and apathy. The opposite is true. We celebrate creativity because it is a proxy for everything that is good about ourselves. 

But what if it turned out that a nonhuman process driven by data, statistics, and computing power – let’s call it “AI” – could generate humanlike creative results? And what if those results were good enough that we humans could no longer tell the difference? What if such a computational system, which at first appeared to be merely regurgitating human inputs, were to advance beyond pastiche? What if it were to begin generating non-derivative outputs that we might accept as new, “truly original,” even breathtaking in a way that’s competitive with our own best efforts?

If that happened, we’d have a good reason to feel confused and upset. Perhaps insulted. Because we know that a nonhuman process, spitting out art in an instant, is not and cannot be manifesting the virtues we associate with creativity. It did not struggle, because it cannot experience pain. It was not brave, because it was not afraid. It did not have patience, because it cannot experience the passing of time. It did not strive, because it cannot experience hope. It did not take risks, because it cannot experience fear. It did not sacrifice, because it cannot experience love. It cannot experience. And yet it was able to produce the kind of artifact that we have so far seen as evidence of experience.

If it turned out that creativity could be divorced from human virtue – existing as a soulless computational phenomenon – but still appearing competitive with embodied, human creativity, what would happen next? If it turned out that all the qualities we consider to be the most admirable about ourselves are actually not necessary for achieving the best creative results, we might question the worth of those qualities themselves. Virtue itself might be devalued in our eyes. Yes, open-mindedness, persistence, hard work, passion, and love would still be good – we’d agree – but if they weren’t actually essential for creating great prose or music or visual art or for solving novel technical challenges and formulating powerful scientific concepts that we accept as beautiful, then perhaps they’d seem just a little less important than we thought they were. 

Creative products too would lose worth, if we could no longer treat them as windows to an artist’s “soul,” but if we now had to contend with the possibility of their being simulated windows to a simulated soul. If we could no longer be sure we were seeing human emotion expressed, human virtue manifested in these outputs, then the remnants of our fractured aesthetic experience might tend toward uncertainty, doubt, and suspicion.

In times before AI, when we looked at a work of art that we happened to love, we might have appreciated its inherent beauty, and then we might have reflected upon our admiration for the artist. But even when we didn’t like the work and we didn’t know anything about the artist, we still knew that whoever made it had needed to reach inside themselves, at least to try. What we saw, good or bad, was the outcome of that reach. Looking at a disappointing work, we still might have thought “Aren’t people fantastic?” The things they do. The ideas they dream up. The dedication they show. The urge they feel to share, to express. Art is a way we feel connected to each other and show our love for one another. Whether any particular “gift” pleases our taste or not, it’s the gesture that counts.

AI creativity threatens to disrupt that connection. If we first have to ask – because we can’t actually tell – whether the work was created by a human or a machine, we might still enjoy the work for its specific content, but we would have lost the opportunity for awe at the human virtues that its creation must have required, because perhaps none of those virtues were required after all.

There are many bad things that could happen here. A good thing that could happen is that the insult of AI creativity beckons us to refocus on the reasons why we admire creativity in the first place, and that it pushes us to do more to recognize and appreciate those virtues wherever they are manifested by the beings who can do that – our fellow humans.

Criticism, Language, Society

Evidence of effort

Why do we pay attention when someone shouts?

It’s not only because the sound is loud – it blocks other sounds and hurts our ears.

It’s not only because there’s a social norm that shouting indicates urgency.

It’s also because shouting takes effort. A person can’t shout for very long before getting tired and hoarse. So someone who shouts is making an investment, and we sense that.

If our physiology allowed us to shout with the same ease as we speak, then shouting would lose significance as a gesture. We might still notice it, in the way we notice an emoji, but we wouldn’t take it as seriously.

This example reveals that when we communicate, we do more than exchange information with each other. We model each other. We imagine what it might take for the other person to make the gestures they’re making. Our empathetic model of the other person affects how we experience their words and actions. 

It’s always been possible to game the system of empathetic modelling, so to speak. For example, some people just naturally have loud voices. They’re not putting in extra effort to speak so loud, but we respond to them as if they were more passionate than the quieter ones. Those who speak softly are at a disadvantage when it comes to garnering attention, even though they might be the ones trying harder.

Until recently, writing was hard. The only way someone could produce a large body of text that exhibited good prose style and good logic was through time and effort. Some people were much more fluent at writing than others, but we could assume that any person who wrote a tight essay or a well-organized book must have cared about what they were writing, or at least, they must have had a motivation significant enough to compel them to invest the time and energy required.

Now it turns out that computers can write for us, and they can write better than many of us. So how will this affect our empathetic modelling of the written word? How will it affect our ability to be moved by what we read?

Surely we will still find meaning in text, but there will be a cloud of uncertainty about the purported author’s investment in the act of creating that text. Did they spend hours laboring over a from-scratch essay or did they just lightly revise the near-instantaneous product of a machine?

Already some writers are saying “AI is my partner. It helps me express myself.” If the writing is good, informative, entertaining, why should it matter how it was produced? It should matter because communication is more than an exchange of information. Communication is an experience, and that experience can’t be detached from the context – from our understanding of the properties of the medium, including its difficulty. 

If we want a glimpse of how this is going to go, we can look to photography. The internet is awash in photographs and we can still enjoy them and learn from them and sometimes be moved by them. But we can never be sure how they’re made. And that devalues them. A digital photographer might have labored for months to get a certain shot – their dedicated practice finally combining with luck to achieve a miraculous result – or they might have taken a lackluster image and enhanced it by clicking a few buttons in photo-editing software to achieve that marvelous color and detail. Or maybe they just typed a description of what they wanted and had the software generate the photo for them?

If it’s a good photo, who cares? We care because we want to be moved, and our ability to be moved depends on our ability to connect with the artist by imagining their process of creation. Empathetic modelling.

The prerequisite to being moved is having our attention captured. And our attention is captured when we see evidence of effort. Proof of work. Demonstration of commitment.

With technology, we’re making things easier and easier so that no creative product can any more be seen as proof of work. Awe at an artist’s labor is replaced with a question mark. How did they do it and how much help did they have from machines?

Is there something morally wrong with getting help from a machine? That is not the question at hand. The question is what happens to aesthetic experience when the process of creation becomes increasingly machine-driven? The question is what happens to our response to a communication act when empathetic modelling is infused with doubt, when we can no longer discern what an author wrote and what they merely took? What happens to aesthetic experience when machine-brokered magic is inserted into our image of the process of human creativity?

Our obsession with authenticity should tell us something about this. Why would we gaze for hours at an old masterwork hanging in a museum but not at a forgery that looks identical to it? That’s because when we see the authentic work, knowing that it is such, we imagine the great artist laboring to make it, but when we see the forgery, we image a thief working to deceive us. Same image, different empathetic modelling, different experiential outcome.

If we look back to the time before machines could write, a time when photographs could only be made with light hitting physical film, it wasn’t a time of unbridled bliss. Glorious words could still be ignored or misunderstood, and photographs themselves may have seemed too easy to make in comparison to paintings, too easy to be worth a viewer’s deepest respect. But anyone who tried to take a photograph would have come to know the difficulty of it and been able to appreciate the accomplishments attained in the best photographs.

Imagine a world where we’re all shouting, all the time, and we can’t be moved by any of it. That is the world we would get if, through technology, we made it effortless to shout.



What causes polarization in society?

If this seems like an intractably complex question, let’s approach it by asking why polarization surprises us in the first place. Since it’s easier to stoke enmity than empathy, easier to start a war than to end one, why shouldn’t polarization be the norm? Why shouldn’t all societies be divided all the time?

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Language, Society

Don’t lead with lies, even quoted ones

To anyone in the media who might ever read this, I beg you to stop spreading propaganda through your well-meaning but counterproductive efforts at “fact checking.”

When a politician releases propaganda, they want the propaganda to spread. They’re hoping for people to repeat it as often as possible. They’re trying to exploit the illusory truth effect — the way familiarity breeds belief.

Whether the propaganda is repeated approvingly or disapprovingly doesn’t matter. As long as the repetition – the transmission – occurs, the goal is achieved. If you, as a member of the media, repeat the propaganda and then explain why it’s false, you’ve still repeated it and served the goal of the politician who wanted precisely that to happen. This applies especially to the genre of fact checking.

When you fact-check a statement by a politician, you often do it in two steps. First, you recite the statement: “Politician X said ‘Pigs can fly.’” Second, you address the veracity of the statement: “There is no evidence that pigs can fly.”

It matters what you lead with.

Leading with a falsehood – even a quoted one – is a terrible approach because it gives the falsehood the spotlight. Wouldn’t it be great if pigs could fly? You should give the truth the spotlight instead. The truth is at a disadvantage because it’s less titillating than the lie. Pigs are earthbound – how boring! If your goal is to promote the truth, you need to work extra-hard to compensate for its inherent disadvantage. Showcase the truth by introducing it first. Explain why it matters. Only then, once the truth has been firmly established, quote the lie. Then repeat the truth. “Pigs definitely can’t fly. But Politician X claimed today that they can. But we know they certainly can’t.”

After this “truth sandwich” has been presented – truth-lie-truth – you should then examine the motivations behind the lie. “Given that pigs can’t fly, why would a politician want citizens to believe the falsehood that pigs can fly? What is at stake?”

Realize that your audience consists of some people who trust you more than they trust Politician X, and some people who trust Politician X more than they trust you. If an audience member is in that first category – if they’re already suspicious of Politician X – then your fact-checking probably doesn’t tell them anything they didn’t already assume. You’re only asking them to dedicate more of their mental energy to considering a falsehood that they’ve already rightly dismissed. But if an audience member loves Politician X, they’re going to cling to what Politician X said. When you quote Politician X they’re going to concentrate on the quote itself, ignoring the analysis that you offer next. They’ll forget your quibbling assertion that Politician X’s statement is false because what you’re saying isn’t as exciting and they don’t really trust you to begin with.

The only way to make fact-checking effective as a tool for promoting the truth is to make it about the truth. The truth is the story. The truth is the main character. The truth gets the spotlight. The propaganda – the false statements that are being fact-checked – should be given a minor role. They should only be allowed an appearance after the truth has had its initial say. And once the propaganda gets its turn, the truth should get another turn, the final say.

When I started writing this post, I assumed I was developing the material on my own. Indeed, fact-checking has been a pet peeve of mine for some time and I had written about it back in 2016. But when I searched for the term “truth sandwich,” I came across an NPR article from 2018 citing the linguist George Lakoff. I vaguely remembered reading it back then. I must have internalized the idea and forgotten the source — not unlike someone who remembers a claim they heard during a “fact check” session and then forgets the fact-checking part. So… the “truth sandwich” idea isn’t mine – the credit goes to Lakoff. Back in 2018, Lakoff’s proposal got a few mentions. A few members of the media discussed it and published articles on it. I fear that two years later, the lesson has not been widely learned and propaganda maintains the upper hand, happily co-opting the efforts of those who attempt to fact-check it out of existence. So I will do what I can to promote Lakoff’s truth sandwich. I hope you will too.



Let’s be candid: there are few things more infuriating than other people’s stupid beliefs. What is an example of a stupid belief? Take the idea that the coronavirus is a hoax. I call this idea stupid because the virus has caused 640,601 worldwide deaths as I type, and I call this idea infuriating because it leads to behavior that increases transmission, making the situation worse for all of us. When I hear someone fiercely advocate for such a stupid belief, even saying that masks are bad for our health, I feel a sense of shock. How could a person possibly believe a thing so wrong? To answer the how question, I must examine why I am shocked in the first place.

My working theory of belief, I confess, is a simplistic one. I tend to think that every person is on a search for truth. Beliefs are the outcome of a search for truth. We all search for truth in our own ways, and it turns out that some people are quite bad at conducting this search, so they end up with beliefs that don’t make any sense. When I am confronted with such ludicrous beliefs, I tend to give the believer the benefit of the doubt. They are on a quest, just like I am on a quest, but they took a wrong turn in this particular case, just like I have certainly done in other cases. The outcome of their failed search for truth may be an outlandish and toxic belief, but nevertheless it arose from a desire that’s noble and universal: the desire to understand the world.

When I am shocked by a ludicrous belief, my shock comes from not understanding how anyone could be so ignorant of the facts in front of them, so incapable of simple reasoning, so inept at the most basic things we do when we search for truth. You would think that a person who believes the coronavirus is a hoax wouldn’t survive a day on this planet. Forget about their catching the virus. Surely they’d burn themselves on a stove, thinking the flame was a hoax, and promptly get hit by a bus, thinking physics is a hoax. But they don’t. It turns out that lots of people who believe horribly stupid things are actually great at surviving in the world. Not only do they not get hit by buses especially often, but they sometimes achieve great popularity and wealth despite their believing – or perhaps because of their believing the equivalent of 2+2=5. The fact that this surprises me tells me that my working theory of belief needs revision.

After years of watching American politics, observing the American response to climate change, and now the American response to the coronavirus, I’m forced into a sad conclusion: people, for the most part, aren’t on a search for truth, and beliefs are not best conceived as the outcome of a search for truth. Beliefs are simply stories that people adopt because there is a payoff of some sort. When we are shocked that someone holds a particularly irrational belief, our shock arises because the payoff is not apparent to us. If we were to identify the payoff, then we would find it clear why the person holds the belief.

A belief is an investment. If you are to make a financial investment, like purchasing a mutual fund or a piece of real estate, you first need to encounter it. You might find it on your own, or someone might actively pitch it to you. You might resist at first, but a skilled salesperson might overcome your objections. When you buy it, there might be a transaction cost. As you hold it, there will be ongoing maintenance costs, but you will accept these because there is a hopefully larger return. The investment might have some “intrinsic” value, but this intrinsic value might be totally disconnected from the returns you experience. If market conditions work in your favor, you might experience a great return on something that is intrinsically worthless.

When you adopt a belief, there is a transaction cost too. You might have to abandon something else you currently believe, and there might be something unpleasant in the new belief that you have to come to terms with. You might have to admit you were wrong in the past. As you hold the new belief, there will be an ongoing maintenance cost. Your own mind might periodically challenge the belief, finding gaps and contradictions within it. Your friends and family might challenge the belief, arguing with you, and even ceasing to associate with you. If you keep holding the belief in light of these costs, that’s likely because the returns are greater. If the belief happens to be true, then perhaps it helps you solve problems or navigate situations that require an accurate model of reality. But even if the belief is false, it may have other, more attractive returns. The belief might make you feel good. The belief might place you in a community of other believers whose company you enjoy, or distinguish you from those whose company you hate. The belief might make you feel superior to those who make you afraid. The belief might win you the attention you want. The belief might get you a job. The belief might serve as a social bonding mechanism, a calling card, or a salve.

The cost of maintaining a belief may depend somewhat on its veracity, but only somewhat. One would hope that it is harder to maintain a false belief than a true one, since the false belief would conflict with observed reality or contain logical inconsistencies that trouble the mind. But this is only a problem if the believer constantly searches for logical inconsistencies among his or her many beliefs and constantly tests those beliefs against observed reality. If the believer isn’t in the habit of doing these things, the maintenance costs go down considerably.

I used to imagine that a person’s many beliefs existed in some vast common space in their mind – mingling with each other as if in a great ballroom – and that if two beliefs contradicted each other, the host would inevitably notice this and feel disturbed enough to seek a resolution. I don’t see it this way anymore. The space of belief is more like a forest at night, filled with hiding places. Denizens of the forest who might antagonize or kill each other if they met in daylight hide quietly in their own nests.

A person might hold two contradictory beliefs without those beliefs ever meeting and doing battle. And a person who valiantly endeavors to rid their beliefs of contradictions will have a hard time of it, because that person has no way of acquiring a complete inventory of their beliefs, no better chance than a naturalist might have of cataloguing every living being in a vast and dark forest. The mind harbors no unified list of beliefs that can be printed out. You can try to write all your beliefs on paper but I would wager that there are dozens of beliefs you will not know about and dozens that you may be too uncomfortable to write. There may be some that you begin to write and promptly deny. There are beliefs that only become apparent through one’s actions, in situations where one is too distracted to articulate them as beliefs.

When I look at the news and hear that throngs of people still think the coronavirus is a hoax, or still think climate change a hoax, I am astonished because I think of how painful it would be for me to hold those same beliefs. These beliefs would clash with my confidence in science and my faith in the scientific establishment. My friends, all of whom accept the coronavirus and climate change as real, would laugh at me. I would have to reconsider all the efforts I am making in my own life to try to reduce my carbon footprint. I would have to change my news sources and my idea of who is a trusted authority. When I imagine holding these beliefs, I am so caught up in the pain I would feel that I find it difficult to conceive there could be a payoff of any sort.

To understand people who call coronavirus or climate change a hoax I must imagine that the economics are different for them. For me, the transaction cost and ongoing maintenance cost of these conspiratorial beliefs might be very high; for them it might be very low. Their friends might already agree that the virus is hoax and cheer them on for saying the same. Announcing the belief might bring them love. They may not feel any great allegiance with the project of science, no matter that they use its products (computer, cellphone, modern medicine), so they would feel no hesitation in disputing scientific authorities. As they assert these beliefs, they may feel a sense of pride and power in challenging an establishment they consider oppressive. Believing the virus is a hoax may mean, for them, that they get to share more laughs and have more beers with friends. For them, the experience of holding the belief might be entirely pleasant. Why wouldn’t they believe it?

We might wish that it couldn’t be so pleasant to believe in something so dangerous, that it couldn’t be so lucrative to invest in something so wrong, but it can. A person’s beliefs may be more a record of what rewarded them than of what brought them closer to truth. Perhaps the dynamics of belief share the same skewed outcomes as market-based capitalism: beliefs are adopted, just like financial investments are made based on the immediate payoff, without accounting for externalities or hidden social costs. One can easily believe something, or invest in something that damages the common good, without ever realizing or paying for the damage, and so the damage accumulates, compounding until there is a collapse.

Life, Society

Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

Leaving Facebook, Society

The Myth of the Guarded Facebook User

When I heard that Wade Roush is planning to leave Facebook, I took note. Wade is a veteran technology journalist and the host of the podcast Soonish. He is not the first person to take a stand against Facebook, but when someone who follows technology and thinks about the future as a profession makes such a decision, it’s a big deal. Wade’s announcement reminded me of my own plan to get off Facebook, a plan that’s been in the works for, oh, five years now. It made me wonder if there’s anything I can contribute to the “Fexit” discussion, so I’ll explore that here.

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Fact Checking

The word “fact” can mean “something that actually exists; reality; truth” but it can also mean “something said to be true or supposed to have happened,” and of course those meanings are very, very different but in politics they are often conflated. I don’t like the term “fact check” because it tends to impart too much credibility to the statement being considered. Yes, politicians sometimes make statements that they genuinely believe to be true, and such sincere assertions, such “possible facts,” are indeed worthy of being “checked.” All too often though, politicians make statements crafted for political gain that they know to be false. To subject such deliberate falsities to a so-called “fact check” is to dignify the falsity by suggesting that it might possibly be true or that an informed person might reasonably have considered it as true until learning some new information uncovered during the investigation. But there was never such a possibility: the statement was always a deliberate and obvious lie. There is a phenomenon where the media will play a soundbite where a candidate loudly asserts an obvious falsehood and then a commentator will proceed to “fact check” the assertion and conclude that it is false: the candidate “got the facts wrong,” a minor offense. The “fact check” makes it seem like the commentator is doing his or her job by both reporting on the assertion and subjecting it to scrutiny. Really, the media is allowing itself to be played by the politician whose only goal was to have the falsehood broadcast as often and as widely as possible. Mission accomplished. “Fact checking” the falsehood is superfluous, or even dangerous, because the soundbite will linger in memory much longer and with more vividness than any boring commentary accompanying it (even if that commentary directly contradicts it) and also because the falsehood was never meant to appeal to those with a strong concern for factual accuracy in the first place. Rather, the statement was meant to appeal to those who will applaud any “jab” against their perceived enemies, and every broadcast of the soundbite (whether accompanied by a fact-check or not) is another hit, another point scored. The logical approach to dealing with a person who repeatedly spouts falsehood is not to continuously “fact-check” that person but to ignore the person; unfortunately, the person’s very mendacity makes the person a spectacle that everyone wants to watch, and ignoring a spectacle is not good for ratings. How do we solve this?