A New Rule for Posting Claims on Social Media

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

With misinformation exploding all over the Internet, perhaps we should start being as careful about posting memes containing information as we should have been in the first place.

I have been following the Facebook page for Snopes.com for some time now. Snopes is the fact-checking page everyone who knows what they’re doing seems to use.

Its Facebook page is mainly used by people asking for information about suspect claims they have come across. Unsurprisingly, a lot of these claims are in the form of pictures or links already shared on Facebook.

Following the Snopes Facebook page has very effectively served to make the point of how much false information there’s going around social media. The tide is endless.

Some of it is trivial. People just seem to make up cute stories. That’s something I noticed years back when reading the Snopes website, and something I wondered about. Why do people go around making up lies to share on the Internet?

The best explanation I got for that was the guess of another user on the Facebook page that they do it for the social benefits of sharing things that people will like. I can’t say I have much sympathy for that.

Then there’s the not so trivial stuff – mainly political lies. And it seems that there, too, absolutely anything goes. This should not come as a surprise, but, again, it really drives the point home following the Snopes page: a Facebook meme claiming to present some facts might be totally false, and there would be nothing surprising about this. It wouldn’t be some rare occurrence you should be unprepared for.

And all of this is after Facebook’s efforts to drive down engagement with fake news websites appears to have worked to cut their numbers down considerably.

What kind of reality is this all creating? For one thing, people are going to believe many of these lies and form their views accordingly. As one example I noticed, it seems likely that a lot of Americans believe undocumented immigrants are major users of social security in their country, when in fact they are not entitled to it because they are there illegally (but do contribute tax money to your social security). A huge, blatant lie shaping people’s opinions.

For another thing, there being so many lies around creates a mistrust in there being such a thing as reliable sources, paradoxically leading people to feeling more free to believe in whatever they like.

In light of all this, I propose a new rule to follow on social media: Don’t share claims without a source. At all. Not even if the claim seems reasonable and likely, or it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s true.

If you really want to share it, maybe you can find the source and add it. If it doesn’t matter enough to do that, how does it matter enough to risk sharing false information?

Nobody can stop the tide alone, but things that need to be done together can’t be done without us individuals. We don’t like people sharing lies we don’t like, so let’s be truly better ourselves and show there’s an alternative.


Why Skeptics Need to Take a Hit for Believers

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

For me, it’s deeply important to question things things to find out the truth. For others, it’s similarly important to believe in something. There’s a reason why I sometimes let what’s important to them come first.

One of the important rules of talking to people with different opinions is not to question their important beliefs just because you disagree. So, for example, you shouldn’t argue with everyone who believes in God just because you think the belief is not supported by evidence.

What’s not often noticed, though, is that the skeptic who argues against a belief may be standing up for something positive that’s just as important to them.

I am usually the skeptic. I care about believing what is most likely true, not about believing in some particular thing.

This really is something that’s spiritually important to me. To embrace the universe by letting it come to me as it is, not distorted by my subjectivity. To honor truth and exemplify honesty and humility by admitting my own fallibility. To be moral and strive for something greater in the universe no matter what the universe turns out to be like.

This song captures how I feel well:


There’s another, much more common way of looking at spirituality and meaning in life that I find partly relatable but partly very strange. This is when particular beliefs are given central importance in one’s world view and sense of self. Religion is the usual example of this (leading to a somewhat confusing double meaning for the word “spirituality”). This is why, to a skeptic, the existence of God might be a mere factual question, whereas to a believer, very much in life hangs on it, and it is not to be questioned lightly.

Such important beliefs could be about other things as well, like political ideology or aliens. Something very puzzling to me is why they are so often about the supernatural. I don’t think believers know why either.

Of course, the world isn’t divided into skeptics and believers. Religious people can have a very inquiring attitude, even going as far as gladly and without vitriol debating the existence of God. And certainly some of the beliefs I do have about the universe have spiritual importance to me, though hopefully not to the point I couldn’t question them given reason.

Nevertheless, I am often the skeptic while others are believers. Religion is the most obvious field where this happens: I am fascinated by it, I want to know about it and want to understand it, I think it’s important to know about it… and my way of looking at it is apparently very threatening to a lot of the people who actually embrace religion. They don’t want to question things that, to them, have a meaning far beyond whether something is factually true or not.

If I honor others’ beliefs by not questioning them, I have to put my own deep values aside. I do think it is right to do so if nothing (else) of moral importance depends on it, if no-one’s harmed by the belief. “Uncritical” thinking is not threatening to me the same way as the questioning of some central beliefs is to some.

Nature vs. “Natural”

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Humans cause a lot of problems by doing things in an “unnatural” way – but the way the term “natural” is used in marketing us things is still nonsense.

We’re constantly being told that something is good because it’s “natural.” I’ve noticed two kinds of reactions to this from different people.

The first is this: That’s good. Natural is good.

The second is: That’s nonsense. It’s an empty marketing term to fool the gullible.

Mine tends to be the second reaction. Yet, at the same time, I admit we have a problem with doing things that disrupt the balance of nature or are unnatural to ourselves. What’s going on here?

First, let me say what I mean when I think that we are doing unnatural things and that’s bad. (Something like this argument is also a theme in Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

There are two main areas where the harms of unnaturalness come up: the ecosystem and human health. Both are complex systems that have adapted to more or less work as they are, or were. In both cases, this adapted balance can be disrupted. We might disrupt an ecosystem by overusing its resources, for example, or adversely affect our own health by adopting a diet and lifestyle too different from what our bodies and minds are evolutionarily adapted to.

What happens in these cases is often that the system is so complex we can’t see the consequences of our actions. We try to change something simple about the system with a simple aim in mind, and it turns out to have complex, harmful consequences we didn’t anticipate. Our models of the complex systems tend to be too simple to take into account all the details and interactions; meanwhile, mindless natural selection can adapt the system to all kinds of things, leading to a natural balance.

So in sum, we should be careful about doing very “unnatural” things, as we may ruin the environment and our health.

Why then do I think “natural” as it so often used is a nonsense term? It’s because it tends to mean that something is of natural origin – or even that it’s just something that feels natural, whatever that means. (Clearly GMOs just don’t feel natural.)

Simply put, using something of natural origin has nothing to do with not disrupting the workings of a complex system’s natural balance. Looking at natural origins is practically magical thinking – or vitalism, the proto-scientific theory according to which living and nonliving things are made of fundamentally different kinds of stuff.

Suppose humans have evolutionarily and bodily adapted to have a certain kind of diet, and then they start consuming large quantities of something quite different. This might cause health problems, and it doesn’t matter if that something else was natural or “organically” grown.

As for the ecosystem, a classic example of interfering with is when rabbits were introduced to New Zealand and disrupted the ecosystem… the rabbits may have been of perfectly natural origins.

Sorry, but there is no magical quality of natural goodness that comes from natural origins. The naturalness we need to care about will always be a complex, systemic matter.

Selfish Memes

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

If genes are selfish, so are memes, which is too bad for us as their hosts.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the metaphor that genes are selfish, meaning that how natural selection works can best be understood on the gene level by thinking of the genes selfishly propagating themselves.

In the same book, Dawkins also introduced the concept of meme, meant to be the unit of cultural evolution subject to natural selection and analogous to genes in biological evolution. Memes are not just things shared on the internet but any kind of ideas that spread – a belief, a tune, a phrase, a method, etc.

Our heads are full of memes, and they control our society too. It’s unfortunate, then, that they are analogous to those genes that are so selfish. We have reason to have only good ideas spread widely and affect our societies, but instead, anything that manages to survive in the competition for space in human minds survives, no matter whether it deserves it or not.

One aspect of this is that, as an idea spreads, it tends to get turned into a dumbed-down yet more extreme and black-and-white form.

One reason for this is simple: it’s easier to process and remember simpler ideas, so when an idea turns simpler in people’s minds, it becomes better at surviving in them. Anyway, failing to process an idea properly is prone to make it understood more simply than it was intended.

Another reason would seem to be that it’s easier to remember more emotional content. It’s also easier to get people interested in it. Thus, a subtle, complicated idea based on understanding different sides of the issue is just waiting to become turned into simplified shouting.

Besides it being easier to get attention to a dumbed-down idea, there’s also the motivation the opponents of the idea have to turn it into a straw man. And besides their doing this intentionally, they may do it because they fail to process the idea properly, because of whom it comes from, or because it contains some aspects they don’t like, turning it into a caricature of what they feel about it.

Ironically, one example of a meme getting twisted this way is the idea of the selfish gene. As I wrote earlier, it’s a great metaphor for those who actually understand it, but it’s problematic in the sense of being so easy to misunderstand.

The metaphor doesn’t say anything about evolution making people or other animals selfish. Dawkins even makes it explicit this is not the case. But thanks to what appear to be general principles of memetics, it’s just asking to be dumbed down into that form.

The idea that genes make people selfish is a great idea to either oppose, or to use as an excuse and to provoke people. Doing this allows one to avoid having to actually understand anything subtle. It’s better for shouting about.

What’s the lesson from all this? I suppose that you should be wary of political views, famous ideas etc. that are presented as simple.

Objectivity as a Moral Duty

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

While we must not neglect our subjective feelings and thoughts, there are powerful reasons why we need to strive to transcend them.

It doesn’t always matter what’s objectively true. In particular, it’s often not right to correct other people in things that are emotionally important to them just because they’re getting some details wrong. For one thing, it’s not good to question others’ religious beliefs without an especially good reason. It’s often much more important to be sensitive to emotional truths.

Suppose, for example, that someone is afraid of snakes. Then it’s not all right for you to hand them your pet snake because it’s not objectively dangerous to hold it. Their fear is still real and you should take it into account.

And yet…

If you are biased against a person and see them as, say, scheming and insincere, that may be your emotional truth. But if it’s not based on objective truth, is it right for you to treat the person as if they have done something wrong without really knowing whether they have?

If you feel afraid of vaccinations causing autism, that may be your emotional truth. But if scientific evidence is clear in that there’s no such connection, and further, if not vaccinating children can lead to a measles outbreak (for real, objectively), is it right for you to hold onto your “truth” and suppose that scientists are all in on some big conspiracy?

Suppose your version of your religion tells you to discriminate against some people, such as homosexuals? What if your emotional truth is that women are inferior? Black people? What if your emotions lead you to treat your own side favorably and what you see as the other side unfairly? Condemn “them” while letting “us” off the hook for wrongdoing? What if you simply condemn others for being wrong and foolish when they have the better objective reasons for their beliefs?

Our minds and selves are complicated tangles of various emotions, beliefs, unconscious influences and who knows what. All kinds of different things lead us to have beliefs. Emotions are a part of this process that cannot and should not be taken out of it. Nevertheless, they often lead the process astray. We need to use enough cool, objective reasoning to see that we don’t cling to strong beliefs that we could be able to tell are just wrong.

It’s wrong to judge or treat people in ways they don’t deserve. It’s wrong to take harmful actions when you could have known better. It’s harmful to deceive oneself. Fairness, justice, humility, the principle of least harm, they all lead to this conclusion:

We have a duty to be objective in forming our beliefs so as to make them as true as possible.

It doesn’t apply to everything and always, but there are many cases in which it does, and it’s probably better to take it as a general guideline. Doing otherwise risks treating other people unfairly based on our own biases as well as causing concrete harm.

Memes Ganging Up on Us

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

Selfish memes can survive in human culture by forming into larger units that offer mutual protection.

Last week, I wrote about how a kind of natural selection among ideas, memes, can cause harmful or inaccurate ideas to spread and survive. This time, I want to look at another way in which undesirable memes can survive: by relying on protection from other memes and each other.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Water M. Miller Jr., and the Hyperion quatrology by Dan Simmons are both stories set in a far future where a cataclysmic destruction has faced the Earth. Aside from that, there’s more or less just one thing that they have in common: in both, the Catholic Church is nearly the only thing to survive in its original form. In Hyperion this is more extreme, as while the whole Earth has disappeared in the disaster, the original Vatican still exists, because the whole thing was physically transported to another planet.

A cultural unit as big as a whole religion is not one meme. It is, to use an expression I got from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, a memeplex, consisting of a large number of memes tied together. The memes still can, and probably do work together in terms of survival. I think of it as something like a multi-cellular organism.

The Catholic Church is known as a bastion of tradition, which in the terms used here means a preserver of memes. Is this bad? I mean, since I’m talking about bad memes and bring up the Catholic Church as an example, I might seem to be saying it’s a bad memeplex. Well, I’m not saying the Catholic Church on the whole is bad. However, what must be acknowledged is that it’s giving some bad memes great protection, especially irrational and immoral “moral” ones.

Memes get selected for survival, and especially as parts of memeplexes, they can build themselves both reproductive efficiency and protection against being abandoned. All by natural selection, of course. When it’s about time they died, they can resist it this way. Perhaps the worst part of this is that so-called moral norms might well be ones that have especially good defenses when they’re part of the system that forms the values of the community. Moral norms are in the habit of getting outdated and really affect people’s lives, so this is a serious issue.

Of course, there are also universal moral norms that are resilient memes in their own way, and that have been invented way back and should be remembered. Even these are subject to the decay mentioned earlier, though. The basic ideas may not be totally lost, but they may be totally lost on some people, like the Americans who can’t tell Ayn Rand’s values from those of Jesus.

Butterfly ei ole perhonen englanniksi

Tämä kirjoitus julkaistiin Indeksi-opiskelijalehdessä 2/2019, tosin tämä on editoimaton versio.

Joskus eri kielien tuttujenkin sanojen välillä on yllättäviä merkityseroja. Pohtiessani joitakin esimerkkejä tästä huomasin, että ne paljastavat myös kiinnostavia asioita sekä siitä, miten kielestä toiseen kääntäminen on joskus monimutkaista, että siitä, miten kieli vaikuttaa ajatteluun.

Olin itsekin yllättynyt, kun ymmärsin, että suomen sana perhonen ja englannin sana butterfly eivät tarkoita samaa. Yleensähän niiden sanotaan Suomessa tarkoittavan samaa, ja lisäksi ne kääntyvät usein käytännössä sujuvasti toisikseen.

Sitten on tämä toinen englannin sana moth. Minä ainakin luulin, että se tarkoittaa samaa kuin koiperhonen. Esimerkiksi moth ball on koipallo ja moth-eaten on koinsyömä. Continue reading