Red Spirits

There's a story I heard from a friend at a recent Rationality meetup. It goes like this:

When Europeans were colonizing Africa, they told some Africans that they had to move their city. Their city was on a plains, and Europeans wanted a nice city like those at home: on a river. The Africans objected, saying that they couldn't live near the river. That's where the red spirits were, and people would suffer if they lived there. The Europeans made them do it anyway, because red spirits clearly don't exist. And then everyone got Malaria.

I think there are two thing going on here:

1. The colonizers were basically assuming that the moral of a fairy tale wasn't useful because the fairy tale wasn't true.

2. The Europeans were ignoring a story because it didn't fit in with the terminology that they already used to describe the world.

Fairy Tales With Morals

The colonizers assumed that, because the justification for a custom was contradicted by scientific understanding, the custom wasn't valuable. Red-spirits don't exist, so there's no reason to follow the custom.

The issue with this is that culture is subject to evolutionary pressure in the same way as genes. Cultures that lead to their adherents prospering are more likely to be present in the future, so any currently existing cultural artifact should be assumed to have served some important purpose in the past. That purpose may not be clear, or it may not be one that you agree with in a moral sense, or it may not apply in the present, but the purpose almost certainly existed.

This is basically a Chesterton's Fence argument at the cultural level. If the colonizers hadn't assumed that something they couldn't see a reason for had no reason, many people's lives could have been saved.

Science Stories

The terminology mistake is, in my opinion, even more dire. The colonizers argued that red spirits didn't exist, so people should move to the river. My friend who told me this story argued that the native villagers were mistaken for believing in red spirits, and that they should instead have believed in mosquitos.

The problem is that it isn't clear from the story that there's any difference between believing in mosquitos and believing in red spirits. Maybe red-spirits just means mosquitos. Or maybe it means malaria. The story doesn't have enough information to tell if the villagers were actually wrong about anything. When I brought this up, my friend couldn't answer any questions about what believing in red spirits actually meant to the villagers.

This is a failure mode that I think is common to people who describe themselves as scientists. I've noticed that people who describe observations in a way that doesn't use standard scientific jargon are often dismissed by people who are super into science. That happens even more if the description given uses words often used by marginalized sub-cultures.

People may be describing the exact same observations, and using the same model to describe those observations, but argue because they're using different terminology. It seems important to actually try to understand the model people have in their heads, and try to avoid quibbles about how they describe that model as much as possible.

There's another level to this if you assume that red spirits actually means ghosts in the western sense. Science-afficianados like to talk about the value of testability, but both mosquito and ghost models are testable. If you think that mosquitos carry tiny cells that can reproduce in your body and make you sick, that implies certain things you can do to prevent disease. If you think that ghosts get angry if you live in a certain area and make you sick, that implies other methods of prevention. People can try these prevention methods and see what works; they can test their theories. Just going in and saying that ghosts don't exist totally ignores any tests that the villagers actually did before you got there.

The Use of Red Spirits

Even assuming that red spirits literally meant believing in ghosts, that idea was saving lives at the time that the colonizers moved in. It seems like there are a lot of fairy tales like this: explanations whose constituent parts don't correspond with things in the real world, but that still accurately predict patterns in the real world.

I think that this is the source of a lot of cultural relativism and post-modernism. If someone thinks only of the outcome of explanations, then the actual truth value of the component parts of the explanation don't matter. All explanations are as valid as they are useful to their culture. Since cultural evolution strongly implies all stories and explanations serve some useful purpose, every story a culture tells is useful. Therefore all explanations are true.

The only mistake that I see with that is the idea that a useful fairy tale implies that each component of the fairy tale is useful.

Having an explanation whose component parts each correspond to something that can be observed in the real world is useful on its own. If you have such a model, you can mentally vary different aspects of it and predict the outcome. It's easier to use subjunctive reasoning on a model with true parts than a model that only useful when taken as a whole. You can even take small sections of the model and apply them in other circumstances.

Thinking that mosquitos cause malaria implies that you should avoid mosquitos, which (as we now know) can actually prevent you from getting sick. Thinking ghosts cause malaria might be useful if you end up avoiding mosquitos while also avoiding ghosts. Given that avoiding ghosts leads to avoiding mosquitos, the main reason to prefer one of these over the other is if one is less onerous.

Beliefs and stories rent out a share of your brain by being useful to you. As the landlord of your brain, it seems like the best thing to do is get beliefs that will pay you a lot in usefulness while requiring little mental real estate for themselves. Believing in and acting on the mosquito-malaria connection takes a certain amount of mental effort. I'm not sure what a belief in a ghost-malaria connection that actually led to avoiding malaria would entail, but I can guess that it would be more mentally costly than the mosquito-malaria alternative.

Theories are more useful than facts

I remember learning about the difference between facts and opinions in elementary school. We spent days going over different statements and classifying them as one or the other. I think this was supposed to make it easier for us to understand different types of semantic objects, but on the whole it seems like the fact/opinion dichotomy has only made it harder for me to learn things. I actually prefer using an Observations/Theories paradigm, which I think makes it much easier to learn and use knowledge.

Facts and Opinions

Thinking of things as opinions and facts seems to place too little weight on an opinion and too much on facts. Facts about gravity and triboluminescence are presented as edicts handed down from on high, despite the fact that there are still huge questions about how these things work. Opinions, such as personal preferences and boundaries, are often dismissed out of hand as if they don't matter.

Facts, especially in school, are also often treated as being independent of observation. This can lead to issues where people who know a lot of facts have no idea about how to use them in the real world.

Observations and Theories

Observations seem important for both opinions and facts. I observed that apples fall at the same rate as bowling balls, and I also observe that when I eat apples I don't enjoy it. I can then theorize about the nature of gravity, or about my preferences for fruit.

The very terminology of theories makes it easier to remember to also present observations that theory predicts. The fact that objects accelerate at 9.8m/s^2 near the surface of the earth is less usable than a theory tied to observations about bowling balls falling at the same rate as golf balls.

Another nice quality of the observations/theories model is that it nicely splits things into two categories. There are those things in the real world that interact with our senses; and there are those things that are stories we tell about our sensations. Facts, especially have a much more murky relationship with reality. Sometimes a fact is an observation, other times is about a model of observations. This can confuse an issue and make it more difficult to learn a model, or to see the flaws in a model.

Science, Psuedo-Science, and Theories

The criticism that evolution is "just a theory" is often used by creationists to reject it. I think the reason for this is that people will often treat things as being either opinion or facts. If evolution is just a theory, then it isn't a fact. So it's something like an opinion and can be safely ignored.

Creationists are completely right about this, too. Evolution (or gravity or whatever) is just a theory. Intelligent design and young-earth ideas are also just theories. All these theories are just stories that people are sharing to try to explain their observations. The only difference between these stories is in how well they actually predict observations.

Treating all types of theory as the same type of thing makes things a bit harder, since each theory then needs to be evaluated on its own merits. You can't just say: gravity is a fact therefore it is true and unquestionable. If Einstein had done that, we wouldn't have GPS right now.

Another consequence of this view is that looking at a theory isn't enough to tell if you should discard it. You also need to look at what it's being used for. Newtonian mechanics, that thing people are taught in pretty much every high school physics class, is not very accurate in many circumstances. You couldn't use Newtonian mechanics to create GPS. However, it's a great theory for most of what people do all day. Want to calculate how long you'll fall while skydiving? Newtonian mechanics is probably a much better theory to use than general relativity, even though general relativity would be more accurate.

I think this is an important point for things like astrology or young-earth creationism. People who espouse these theories seem to have a much different goal than people who are studying psychology or evolution and geology. Pointing out all the ways that astrology fails to predict the course of a person's life usually won't have any impact on people who like astrology, because in general that's not really what they're using it for. Similarly, pointing out ways that young-earth creationism doesn't mesh with the fossil record won't change a person's mind if what they're really concerned about is their religion.

Men in Black ethics

I remember really enjoying the Men in Black movies when I was younger. They've got explosions, aliens, flying saucers, Will Smith. They've got everything that makes a movie great. However, the movies are missing one very important thing: good ethics.

It slipped by me when I was watching the movies as a kid, but humans in the Men in Black universe are kind of the galaxy's village idiot. In the first movie it's explained how television, computers, and basically every other technology was given to us by aliens. We're apparently not capable of developing any of these things ourselves.

In a universe where its easy to travel from one planet to another and there are all kinds of interesting planets with interesting life to visit, we humans are stuck on earth. We get the alien technology that they don't want: television. They keep their faster than light travel for themselves.

The culture of craft and making that's seen a resurgence in the past decade or so has me very excited. It shows that people are creative, interested in learning, and willing to build things that make the world a better and more exciting place to live. It's humans making these inventions, and we celebrate those past humans who invent. People like Philo Farnsworth, the Wright Brothers, and Alan Turing.

When movies like MIB cast humans as incapable of inventing, they do a disservice to our culture and our history.

Science and the immorality of propaganda

I believe, hopelessly, that this morality should be extended much more widely; this idea, this kind of scientific morality, that such things as propaganda should be a dirty word.

- Richard Feynman

The philosophy of science is concerned mainly with a search for truth. Science provides a method to find the truth. At his core, a scientist is someone who seeks to bring his beliefs in line with reality by doing experiments to test his beliefs.

The truth is a scientist's most sacred quality, and anything that hides the truth or confuses it is immoral. Looking around myself at the world that I live in, I see a lot of instances of people hiding the truth, or purposefully confusing an issue, or phrasing things in a misleading way. It's clear why people seek to hide the truth. If you convince people to do something, you can make a lot of money or get a lot of power. But while this may be good for you in the short term, it seems like it's bad for society and the world in the long term. Decisions get made not on the basis of what's best, but on the basis of what has the best propaganda.

Politics and advertising are the two main fields that focus on distorting truth or obscuring it with rhetoric. This means that tasks as simple as choosing toothpaste and as complex and important as choosing a national leader are far more difficult than they need to be. My solution has generally been to avoid all kinds of ads and propaganda, and look for actual data before making a decision.

It would be nice to live in a world where this kind of conscious avoidance of ads wasn't necessary. We already have social and cultural moral systems that prohibit bad behavior. I propose that we work to incorporate prohibitions of advertising and propaganda in these already existing systems. It won't even be very hard: just treat advertisers and marketers the same way you treat people who are rude or smell bad. The social stigma will eventually push people away from propagandizing.