Three Types of Political Extremists

Here’s a possible classification of extremists:

1. True Believers — People whose extremism arises from a sincere belief in the extreme ideology being promoted.

2. Needle-Pushers — Cynical practicers of realpolitik who adopt the extreme position hoping to counteract extremists on the opposing side and “move the needle” toward their own position, getting partisans in power or policies enacted that are more desirable from their point of view.

3. Knee-Jerkers — Followers who are led to back an extremist position because that position’s arguments speak to their own prejudices or harmonizes with their cultural background.

AB — 2 December 2011

The Value of Being Wrong

I love TED Talks as a resource for encountering new ideas. Today I watched Kathryn Schulz’s insightful talk, “On being wrong.Schulz is a journalist known for writing about wrongness.

Near the beginning, Schulz explains her purpose for the talk:

What I want to do today is, first of all, talk about why we get stuck inside of this feeling of being right; and second, why it’s such a problem; and finally, I want to convince you that it is possible to step outside of that feeling; and that if you can do so, it is the single greatest moral, intellectual, and creative leap you can make.

And here’s what I thought was a key insight from the presentation:

…trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous. This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, when we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong, well, that’s when we end up doing things like dumping 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico or torpedoing the global economy.

Here’s the video:

AB — 5 Nov. 2011

How the Internet Reinforces Confirmation Bias

Recently I wrote about confirmation bias in connection with the climate change controversy — see my article at ThomasNet, “All This Wrangling Over Climate Change – What’s Up With That?” The Skeptic’s Dictionary refers to confirmation bias as “a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs.”

Today I ran across an interesting TED Talk (TED hosts and posts video talks on innovative topics) by political activist Eli Pariser who has some interesting things to say about how the algorithms used on web sites such as Facebook and Google tend to reinforce our current thinking and filter out new ideas — see his talk, “Beware Online ‘Filter Bubbles‘” — well worth watching, only nine minutes.

Pariser explains what he means by a filter bubble:

Your filter bubble is kind of your own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online … the thing is, you don’t decide what gets in, and more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.

If you and I both search for the same thing at the same time on Google, for example, we get different results. The danger of the filter bubble, says Pariser, is that

this moves us very quickly toward a world in which the Internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.

He suggests that a personalization algorithm deciding what to show us needs to look not just at what it thinks is “relevant,” but at other factors too, such as those in this slide from his presentation:

This seems like a great insight. Anyway, I highly recommend this short video to get you thinking outside the box:

AB — 24 August 2011

How to Talk About Climate Change

The aspect of the climate change controversy (and other issues in public discourse) that intrigues me most of all is the ability of people on opposite sides to talk past each other. I say it intrigues me, but it also saddens me in a sense, as I value dialogue, engagement, and listening.

Partisan rhetoric seems designed to paint the other side as extremist and wicked. The rhetor seems willing to present an argument in a one-sided, deceptive manner so as to influence public sentiment and achieve a political agenda.

In the wrangling over climate change, the parties throw around terms like “anti-science,” “hoax,” “deniers,” “pseudo-science,” junk science,” and “anti-business,” trigger words that demonize the other side.

So I enjoyed reading Will J. Grant and Rod Lamberts’ post today over at The Conversation, “Who’s afraid of big, bad coal? Al Gore’s ‘climate reality’ is a pointless fairytale.” Grant and Lamberts’ post is a commentary on Gore’s new Climate Reality Project. They acknowledge that Gore’s project is “the kind of campaign that will do a lot for those who want to do something about climate change,” but feel that it will do “little for anyone else.” Their question is, “Where is the mechanism here that will finally get the unconverted or the hostile to agree with the need to take action on climate change?”

What most interested me was their criticism of Gore’s promotional video, in which he accuses “Big Oil” and “Big Coal” of evil manipulations. This is ridiculous, Grant and Lamberts write:

Those who got into the coal and oil industries did so for the simple goal of making a profit by providing us with the energy we need for the modern economy. They didn’t do it to be evil. They don’t want to destroy the world. They are not the nefarious oligarchs that so many would have you believe.

Yes, we now know that the carbon pollution produced by the coal and oil industries is a big problem for society. We all need to wean ourselves off such carbon intensive energy.

But we’re not going to do it by misrepresenting people’s intentions and calling them names. We’re not going to do it by punishing people who acted in good faith.

We’re only going to convince people to change by lining up their profit motive with everyone’s need for a low-carbon economy.

Seems like the kind of open, refreshing approach that can lead to actual dialogue over critical issues.

AB — 19 July 2011

Rob Hopkins Response to Criticism of Environmentalism

My article this week at ThomasNet Green & Clean was on the fascinating, fast-growing Transition movement — see “The Transition Movement – Preparing for a World After Peak Oil.”

The “green movement” that seemed so powerful and dynamic just a couple of years ago has come under criticism recently, as you can see in Susanna Rustin’s recent article in the Guardian — see “Has the green movement lost its way?

Coincidentally, the Transition Network just concluded its 2011 conference in Liverpool. Co-founder Rob Hopkins wrote up his reflections on the conference in a blog post yesterday, and included a response to Rustin’s question:

An article in the Guardian last week asked “has the green movement lost its way?” I think that is the wrong question. The right question should be “has a new, emergent culture which embraces resilience and localisation, equity and partnership, even scratched the surface of its potential?” I think the answer is a resolute no. We’ve all had a taste of that this weekend.

Having written a great deal about innovation as analyst for the ILO Institute, insights like this get my attention. Innovations often come from unexpected quarters, when people begin asking new questions and asking questions in a different way.

AB — 12 July 2011

The Coming Energy Internet

Over at ThomasNet Green & Clean, I’ve posted “Is an ‘Energy Internet’ Emerging?” I’ve included some insights from networking pioneer Bob Metcalfe, also Thomas L. Friedman and Jeremy Rifkin, as well as my own thinking about the increasingly networked energy grid.

In an email conversation, Metcalfe acknowledged to me that “energy can be viewed as a thermodynamics problem or a government policy problem,” but he thinks that ultimately  “it’s best instead to view energy as a networking problem.”

In a presentation, he gives a bit of history:

“While building Internet 1.0, the Arpanet,” during the 1970s, Metcalfe says in his presentation, “I remember this clearly, we did not say that our goal was YouTube.” And yet, “video is most of what the Internet now carries.”

So, he asks,

What will be energy’s YouTubes?

AB — 5 June 2011

Undo: One of the Greatest Innovations in Computing

The Undo function — a life-saver.

From “Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems,” Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Sept. 1977:

A more complex situation, however, occurs … when a user wishes to “undo” the effects of some number of prior commands — as, for example, when a user inadvertently deletes all personal files. Recovery from such situations is handled by most systems by providing “back-up” copies of (all) users’ files, from which a user can get restored the personal files as they were some days previous. While this is perhaps acceptable for catastrophic errors, it would be quite useful to permit users to “take back” at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special “undo” command).

Now if they would only invent an Undo button for one’s personal life.

AB — 15 April 2011

El vaquero y el río congelado

by Al Bredenberg

Paramos allí en la orilla del río, yo y la vaca, Grateful. Confundido, yo estaba mirando en alrededor, buscando el lugar de dar a beber la vaca sedienta, pero no pude ver el lugar. El problema: ¡El río estaba cubierto por una capa gruesa del hielo!

De repente, la vaca empezó a actuar nerviosa y de abordar al río. “¡No, Grateful!” dije a ella, pero ella no prestó atención, y ¡comenzó a pisar al río congelado! Con un creciendo sentido de pánico, yo pisé también al hielo para tratar de desviarla de la peligrosa situación. “¡Ay-ay-ay!” pensé. “¿Qué va pasar si se quebranta el hielo?”

Traté de empujar la vaca hacía la orilla, pero una vaca es un animal bien grande, y ella no se desvió, y lo que era más, comenzó a caminar adelante en el hielo.

“¡Grateful, párate!” grité, y en ese momento ¡la vaca empezó a correr! En un pánico total, empecé a perseguirla, gritando.

Pero, ¿cómo llegué a estar en esa situación, corriendo atrás de una vaca grande por un río congelado en el invierno? Voy a explicar, y también voy a recordar una lección que aprendí acerca de las capacidades de los animales.

A la edad de 24 años, me mudé al estado de Vermont, Estados Unidos, para vivir con unos amigos en su granja en el campo al lado de un río hermoso. Durante los días, ayudaba a ellos en su negocio de ebanista. Muy de mañana y por la noche, cuidamos a los quehaceres, incluso alimentar y ordeñar la vaca Grateful, que nos proveyó con mucha leche rica.

Grateful era una vaca de mayor edad que mis amigos han adquirido de un lechero del área. Ella recibió su nombre “Grateful” (inglés, “agradecida”) porque ella tenía solamente tres tetas y por eso proveyera menos leche. Pero a pesar de eso, ¡no la han matado por carne!

Desafortunadamente, el agua de la casa dejó de funcionar durante el invierno por causa del frío intenso. Pues decidimos de dar a beber a la vaca en el río a unos ciento metros de distancia del establo. Dejamos una hacha en la orilla para excavar un hoyo en el hielo cada noche para exponer el agua por la vaca sedienta.

Pero, durante unas semanas, yo acepté la asignación de cuidar a la vaca durante la mañana, y otra persona la daba a beber en las noches.

La noche en que ocurrió el incidente que mencioné anteriormente, todos mis compañeros estaban trabajando tarde, pues se cayó a mí de cuidar a Grateful.

Pero, cuando llegamos al río, descubrí que mis compañeros habían movido el lugar para dar a beber. Yo busqué todo alrededor, pero no pude ver el hoyo en el hielo ni el hacha para cortar el hielo.

Entonces, ¡esta vaca loca estaba caminando en el hielo, determinada para seguir adelante, sin prestar atención al ser humano persiguiéndola, gritando!

Bueno, con gran temor, continué corriendo atrás de Grateful por uno o dos minutos, impotente de hacer nada, esperando que el hielo grueso pudiera sostener la vaca pesada.

Pero sorprendentemente, después de unos minutos, Grateful empezó a minorarse, y entonces ella regresó a la orilla en una manera muy calma, y me esperó. ¡Aparentemente, después de todo, no estuviéramos pasando por una estampida!

Resollando, calmándome, yo miré alrededor, y en ese lugar más adelante al lado del río, vi varios montones de estiércol de vaca, un hoyo en el río, y el hacha apoyándose en un árbol.

En ese momento comprendí de que durante las semanas pasadas, mis compañeros, sin informarme, habían cambiado el lugar por dar a beber la vaca. Este lugar estaba más adelante en la orilla. Pero, llegué a entender que la vaca recordó perfectamente el lugar correcto y simplemente había tratado de llegar allí a pesar de la tontedad de su ayudante humano.

Yo grabé el hacha, y comencé a cortar la capa fina de hielo en el hoyo para permitir de beber la pobrecita vaca sedienta.

Pero, al la misma vez, ocurrió a mí una realización y lección: ¡Muchas veces, los animales son más inteligentes que pensamos!

AB — 18 enero 2011

Why People Don’t Believe Scientists Even When There Is ‘Consensus’

An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.

I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”

These conclusions shed light on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, Kahan tells Science Daily (“Why ‘Scientific Consensus’ Fails to Persuade“):

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

(For more on the climate-change controversy, see my previous entry, “John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton.”

Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.

They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.

Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:

Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.

The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.

So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:

It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.

The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

AB — 24 Sept. 2010

‘Quriosity’ Is Dead – Long Live ‘A Thinking Person’

Readers of will be interested to learn that I have sold that domain (someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). As a result, I have transferred all Quriosity content to the new domain and blog

You’ll be glad to know that A Thinking Person will continue to publish the same brilliant commentary you have come to expect from Quriosity.

The new RSS feed address for A Thinking Person is .

AB — 14 September 2010