Cohen historical theory

Avner Cohen provides a great summary of writing history (here under the particular limitations of studying Israel’s nuclear arsenal):

The narrative I offer, then, is by nature incomplete and interpretative. Like all narratives, it is not written from God’s-eye view; rather, it is a story told through incomplete human and archival sources.

Cohen, Avner. “Before the Beginning: The Early History of Israel’s Nuclear Project (1948–1954).” Israel Studies 3.1 (1998): 112-139.

Con artist terminology

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who he is, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with each step we give them more psychological material to work with.

Konnikova, Maria. The Confidence Game. Why We Fall for It… Every Time. Penguin Books, 2016. p. 11-2

Con artists and the Holmes canon

On one of today’s walks I listened to an unusually good episode of the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast: The Confidence Game.

I ordered Maria Konnikova’s book The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time and will read David Maurer’s 1940 book The Big Con when I go back to visiting libraries.

In addition to the Sherlockian interest, there is a double relevance to climate change politics. Studying persuasion and the influencing of others’ beliefs and behaviours may help inform strategy to help create effective climate change policies, as well as help with understanding how climate change deniers are so persistent and influential.

Climate advocates should call for fossil fuel abolition, not “net zero”

The concept of “net zero” has become a major mechanism for industries and politicians who are unwilling to move past the fossil fuel economy to pretend that somehow that will not be necessary, since some future technology or tree planting will cancel out the emissions.

I’ve written before about how you would need a carbon capture industry far greater than today’s oil industry to bury our current emissions, and this CO2 burial industry would not produce anything of value to sell, meaning it would need to be paid for in a way not envisioned in any of the net zero promises I have seen. Tree planting is perhaps even more hopeless, since temporary sequestration of CO2 in biomass is not comparable to the permanent addition of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. When climate plans rely heavily on tree planting it’s a strong indication that they are intended for public relations purposes and do not have a sound scientific basis.

“Net zero” is also profoundly ambiguous about what kind of action needs to take place, since it suggests that we *can* persist indefinitely with fossil fuel use, just so long as some other people undertake compensatory activities to cancel it out. That’s not the right message or set of incentives to present to individuals and firms when we desperately need them to stop investing in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.

Being clear that our intent is to abolish fossil fuels accomplishes several useful things. It reinforces how fossil fuel firms and infrastructure are poor long-term investments, making it all the clearer that Canada should not be allowing new bitumen pipelines or LNG facilities. It stresses how stabilizing the climate can only be achieved through the effective abandonment of fossil fuels, and in so doing elevates the importance of building up all other forms of energy.

Maintaining a climate comparable to what humanity has experienced for its entire history requires a true zero, the effective abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. Talking about “net zero” is chiefly emerging as a way to sound visionary and ambitious, while actually retreating into the hope that somehow new developments will eliminate the need for a difficult choice. We shouldn’t trust business or political leaders who talk that way.

Harris on wilderness

Besides, the historian William Cronon argues that there is nothing “natural” about wilderness, that it is a deeply human construct, “the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” Though I might be appalled by Marco Polo’s failure to swoon at mountains and deserts along the Silk Road, wilderness in his day implied all that was dark and devilish beyond the garden walls. The fact that I’m charmed by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert and the breathtaking expanse of the Tibetan Plateau doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than Polo, more capable of wonder. It means I hail from a day and age—and a country and culture—so privileged, so assiduously comfortable, that risk and hardship hold rapturous appeal.

It probably also means I read too much Thoreau as a teenager. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” he wrote, priming me to pine after places as far away from Ballinafad as possible, like Tibet and Mars. Provoking such distant wanderlust was hardly Thoreau’s fault or intention—he himself never travelled beyond North America—but I enthusiastically misread him, conflating wildness with wilderness, substituting a type of place for a state of mind. Cronon finds the whole concept of wilderness troubling for how, among other things, it applied almost exclusively to remote, unpopulated landscapes, fetishizing the exotic at the expense of the everyday, as though nature exists only where humans are not. This language sets up a potentially insidious dualism, for if people see themselves as distinct and separate from the natural world, they believe they risk nothing in destroying it. What Thoreau was really saying was that he’d travelled wildly in Concord, that you can travel wildly just about anywhere. The wildness of a place or experience isn’t in the place or experience, necessarily, but in you—your capacity to see it, feel it. In that sense, biking the Silk Road is an exercise in calibration. Anyone can recognize wildness on the Tibetan Plateau; the challenge is perceiving it in a roadside picnic area in Azerbaijan.

Harris, Kate. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road. Alfred A. Knopf Canada. 2018. p. 149–50 (italics in original)

Politics and the identification of lies

The November 2nd Economist included an article with some interesting claims about lies, politics, and identifying deceit:

But even in daily life, without the particular pressures of politics, people find it hard to spot liars. Tim Levine of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, has spent decades running tests that allow participants (apparently unobserved) to cheat. He then asks them on camera if they have played fair. He asks others to look at the recordings and decide who is being forthright about cheating and who is covering it up. In 300 such tests people got it wrong about half of the time, no better than a random coin toss. Few people can detect a liar. Even those whose job is to conduct interviews to dig out hidden truths, such as police officers or intelligence agents, are no better than ordinary folk.

Evolution may explain credulity. In a forthcoming book, “Duped”, Mr Levine argues that evolutionary pressures have adapted people to assume that others are telling the truth. Most communication by most people is truthful most of the time, so a presumption of honesty is usually justified and is necessary to keep communication efficient. If you checked everything you were told from first principles, it would become impossible to talk. Humans are hard-wired to assume that what they hear is true—and therefore, says Mr Levine, “hard-wired to be duped”.

In politics, however, these explanations cannot be the whole story. At the heart of the lying-politician paradox is an uncomfortable fact: voters appear to support liars more than they believe them. Mr Trump’s approval rating is 11 points higher than the share of people who trust him to tell the truth. A third of British voters view Mr Johnson favourably but only a fifth think he is honest. Voters believe in their leaders even if they do not believe them. Why?

The answer starts with the primacy of intuitive decision-making. ln 2004 Drew Westen of Emory University in Atlanta put partisan Republicans and Democrats into a magnetic-resonance-imaging scanner and found that lying or hypocrisy by the other side lit up areas of the brain associated with rewards; lies by their own side lit up areas associated with dislike and negative emotions. At no point did the parts of the brain associated with reason show any response at all. If voters’ judgments are rooted in emotion and intuition, facts and evidence are likely to be secondary.

A new version of confirmation bias is “identity-protective cognition”, argues Dan Kahan of Yale Law School. This says that people process information in a way that protects their self-image and the image they think others have of them. For example, those who live surrounded by climate-change sceptics may avoid saying anything that suggests humankind is altering the climate, simply to avoid becoming an outcast. A climate sceptic encircled by members of Extinction Rebellion might do the same thing in reverse. As people become more partisan, more issues are being taken as markers of the kind of person you are: in Britain, the country’s membership of the European Union; in America, guns, trade, even American football. All give rise to the acceptance of bias.

Thomas Gilovich of Cornell shows how fake news, cognition bias and assuming that people are telling the truth interact to make it easier to believe lies. If you want to believe a thing, he argues (that is, a lie that supports your preconceived ideas), you ask yourself: “Can I believe it?” A single study or comment online is usually enough to give you permission to hold this belief, even if it is bogus. But if you do not want to believe something (because it contradicts your settled opinions) you are more likely to ask: “Must I believe it?” Then, one apparently reputable statement on the other side will satisfy you. That may be why so many climate sceptics manage to cling to their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Activists point out that 99% of scientists believe the Earth is warming up because of human actions. But people who doubt the reality of climate change listen to the other 1%.

There does seem to be good reason to believe that people often have powerful psychological impulses to protect their existing worldview rather than believe the most accurate available information or most plausible explanation for what has happened.


Contronyms in English

Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym. Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. Cleave can mean to cut in half or stick together. A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off. If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it. To ravish means to rape or to enrapture. Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years. Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing. A blunt instrument is dull, a blunt remark is pointed. Occasionally when this happens the dictionary makers give us different spellings to differentiate the two meanings—as with flour and flower, discrete and discreet—but such orthological thoughtfulness is rare.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 70–1

Curious English vocabulary

In English, in short, there are words for almost everything.

Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too slight to lead to action. Doesn’t that seem a useful term? Or how about slubberdegullion, a seventeenth-century word signifying a worthless or slovenly fellow? Or ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting? It has lasted half a millennium in English, was a common synonym for horrid until well into the last century, and can still be found tucked away forgotten at the back of most unabridged dictionaries. Isn’t it a shame to let it slip away? Our dictionaries are full of such words—words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcane of distinctions.

And yet there are odd gaps. We have no word for coolness corresponding to warmth. We are strangely lacking in middling terms—words to describe with some precision the middle ground between hard and soft, near and far, big and little. We have a possessive impersonal pronoun its to place alongside his, her, and their, but no equivalent impersonal pronoun to contrast with the personal whose. Thus we have to rely on inelegant constructions such as “The house whose roof” or resort to periphrasis. We have a word to describe all the work you find waiting for you when you return from vacation, backlog, but none to describe all the work you have to do before you go. Why not forelog? And we have a large number of negative words—inept, dishevelled, incorrigible, ruthless, unkempt—for which the positive form is missing. English would be richer if we could say admiringly of a tidy person, “She’s so sheveled,” or praise a capable person for being full of ept or an energetic one for having heaps of ert. Many of these words did once have positive forms. Ruthless was companioned by ruth, meaning compassion. One of Milton’s poems contains the well-known line “Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth.” But as with many such words, one form died and another lived. Why this should be is beyond explanation. Why would we have lost demit (send away) but saved commit? Why should impede have survived while the once equally common and seemingly just as useful expede expired? No one can say.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990. p. 67–8