Coming to grips with a frustrating truth

I’d heard about Mensa many years ago, and for many years I was kind of interested in it. Every once in a while I’d see “intelligence quizzes,” which were supposed to get one interested in the group (it worked). Mensa requires an IQ test, and a minimum score, to join. I looked at some samples of the discussions members had on topics related to societal issues, though, and it all looked pretty mundane in terms of the thought processes exhibited. It wasn’t the intelligent discussion I expected, which was surprising.

I came upon the following video by Stefan Molyneux recently (it was made in 2012), and it seems to explain what I’ve been seeing generally for more than ten years in the same sort of societal discussions (though I can’t say what the IQ level of the participants was). I’ve frequently run into people who seem to have some proactive mental ability, and yet what they come out with when thinking about the society they live in is way below par. I see it on Quora all the time. Most of the answers to political questions are the dregs of the site–really bad. I’ve had no explanation for this inconsistency, other than perhaps certain people with less than stellar intelligence are drawn to the political questions, until I saw this analysis. Molyneux said it’s the result of a kind of cognitive abuse.

The reason I’m bothering with this at all is seeing what he described play out has bothered me for many years, though I’ve assumed it’s due to popular ignorance. It’s part of what’s driven my desire to get into education, though now I feel I have to be more humble about whether that’s really a good answer to this.

I found his rational explanation for this confusing. I’ve needed to listen to it a few times, and take notes. I’ll attempt to summarize.

This is a generalization, but the point is to apply it to people who are more intelligent than average, but who refuse to allow inquiry into their beliefs about society:

Children who are in the “gifted” categories of IQ are told a certain moral message when they’re young, about how they are to behave. However, when those same children try to apply that morality to their parents, and the adults around them–in other words, demand consistency–they are punished, humiliated, and/or shamed for it. They eventually figure out that morality has been used to control them, not teach them. (This gave me the thought, based on other material by Molyneux, that perhaps this is one reason atheism is so prevalent among this IQ category. Rather than morality being a tool to uplift people to a higher state of being, it’s seen purely as a cynical means of control, which they understandably reject.) As soon as they try to treat morality as morality, in other words, as a universal set of rules by which everyone in their society is governed, they are attacked as immoral, uncaring, brutish, wrong, and are slandered. This is traumatic to a young mind trying to make sense of their world.

The contradiction they encounter is they’re told they’re evil for not following these rules as a child, and then they’re told they’re evil for attempting to apply those same rules to other adults when they grow up. They are punished for attempting to tell the truth, even though they were told when they were young that telling the truth is a virtue (and that lying is evil). If they attempt to tell the truth about their society, they are punished by the same adults who cared for them.

The image he paints is, to me, analogous to Pavlov’s dog, where all of its attempts to follow its instincts in a productive way are punished, leading to it quivering in a corner, confused, afraid, and despondent, unable to respond at all in the presence of food. In this case, all attempts to apply a moral code consistently are punished, leading to a disabled sense of social morality, and a rejection of inquiry into this battered belief system, in an attempt to protect the wound.

Molyneux comes to an ugly truth of this situation. This inability to question one’s societal beliefs is the product of a master-slave society: In slave societies, rules are applied to the slaves that are not applied to the masters. They operate by a different set of rules. Morality that is dispensed to the ignorant is used as a cynical cover for control. Those subjected to this inconsistent reality deal with it by trying their best to not look at it. Instead of pushing through the shaming, and demanding consistency, risking the rejection that entails from the society they grew up in, they blindly accept the master-slave dichotomy, and say, “That’s just the way it is.” Those who question it are attacked by these same people, because engaging in that leads them back to the pain they suffered when they did that themselves.

He also addressed a psychological phenomenon called “projection.” He said,

… they must take the horrors of their own soul and project them upon the naive and honest questioner. Every term that is used as an attack against you for engaging in these conversations is an apt and deeply known description of their own souls, or what’s left of them.

I also found this summary video helpful in understanding motivated reasoning, why we’re wired to reject rational thought, and evidence, and to prefer beliefs that are inculcated and reinforced through our social groups, and their authority figures.

Molyneux sort of addressed the evolutionary reasons for it, but I have liked Jonathan Haidt’s explanation for it better, since he gets into the group dynamic of shared beliefs, and justifies them, saying that they played some role in the survival of our species, up until recently: Those who had this group-belief trait lived to reproduce. Those who did not died out. That isn’t to say that it’s essential to our survival today, but that it deserves our respectful treatment, since it was a trait that got what we are here.

What’s also interesting is that Molyneux relates the trait of motivated reasoning to the practice of science, quoting Max Planck (I’ve heard scientists talk about this) in saying that science really only advances when the older generation of scientists dies. This creates room for other ideas, supported by evidence, and critical analysis, to flourish, perhaps setting a new paradigm. If so, it becomes a new sort of orthodoxy in a scientific discipline for another generation or so, until it (the orthodoxy), too, dies away with the scientists who came up with it, repeating the cycle.

Related posts:

Psychic elephants and evolutionary psychology

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind”

The dangerous brew of politics, religion, technology, and the good name of science

Alan Kay’s advice to computer science students

I’m once again going to quote a Quora answer verbatim, because I think there’s a lot of value in it. Alan Kay answered What book(s) would you recommend to a computer science student?

My basic answer is: read a lot outside of the computer field.

It is worth trying to understand what “science” means in “Computer Science” and what “engineering” means in “Software Engineering”.

“Science” in its modern sense means trying to reconcile phenomena into models that are as explanatory and predictive as possible. There can be “Sciences of the Artificial” (see the important book by Herb Simon). One way to think of this is that if people (especially engineers) build bridges, then these present phenomena for scientists to understand by making models. The fun of this is that the science will almost always indicate new and better ways to make bridges, so friendly collegial relationships between scientists and engineers can really make progress.

An example in computing is John McCarthy thinking about computers in the late 50s, the really large range of things they can do (maybe AI?), and creating a model of computing as a language that could serve as its own metalanguage (LISP). My favorite book on this is “The Lisp 1.5 Manual” from MIT Press (written by McCarthy et al.). The first part of this book is still a classic on how to think in general, and about computing in particular.

(A later book inspired by all this is “Smalltalk: the language and its implementation” (by Adele Goldberg and Dave Robson — the “Blue Book”). Also contains a complete implementation in Smalltalk written in itself, etc.)

A still later book that I like a lot that is “real computer science” is “The Art of the Metaobject Protocol” by Kiszales, Bobrow, Rivera,). The early part of this book especially is quite illuminating.

An early thesis (1970) that is real computer science is “A Control Definition Language” by Dave Fisher (CMU).

Perhaps my favorite book about computing might seem far afield, but it is wonderful and the writing is wonderful: “Computation: Finite and Infinite Machines” by Marvin Minsky (ca 1967). Just a beautiful book.

To help with “science”, I usually recommend a variety of books: Newton’s “Principia” (the ultimate science book and founding document), “The Molecular Biology of the Cell” by Bruce Alberts, et al. There’s a book of Maxwell’s papers, etc.

You need to wind up realizing that “Computer Science” is still an aspiration, not an accomplished field.

“Engineering” means “designing and building things in principled expert ways”. The level of this is very high for the engineering fields of Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Biological, etc. Engineering. These should be studied carefully to get the larger sense of what it means to do “engineering”.

To help with “engineering” try reading about the making of the Empire State Building, Boulder Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. I like “Now It Can Be Told” by Maj Gen Leslie Groves (the honcho on the Manhattan Project). He’s an engineer, and this history is very much not from the Los Alamos POV (which he also was in charge of) but about Oak Ridge, Hanford, etc and the amazing mobilization of 600,000 plus people and lots of money to do the engineering necessary to create the materials needed.

Then think about where “software engineering” isn’t — again, you need to wind up realizing that “software engineering” in any “engineering” sense is at best still an aspiration not a done deal.

Computing is also a kind of “media” and “intermediary”, so you need to understand what these do for us and to us. Read Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Innis, Havelock, etc. Mark Miller (comment below) just reminded me that I’ve recommended “Technics and Human Development,” Vol. 1 of Lewis Mumford’s “The Myth of the Machine” series, as a great predecessor of both the media environment ideas and of an important facet of anthropology.

I don’t know of a great anthropology book (maybe someone can suggest), but the understanding of human beings is the most important thing to accomplish in your education. In a comment below, Matt Gaboury recommended “Human Universals” (I think he means the book by Donald Brown.) This book certainly should be read and understood — it is not in the same class as books about a field, like “Molecular Biology of the Cell”.

I like Ed Tufte’s books on “Envisioning Information”: read all of them.

Bertrand Russell’s books are still very good just for thinking more deeply about “this and that” (“A History of Western Philosophy” is still terrific).

Multiple points of view are the only way to fight against human desires to believe and create religions, so my favorite current history book to read is: “Destiny Disrupted” by Tamim Ansary. He grew up in Afghanistan, moved to the US at age 16, and is able to write a clear illuminating history of the world from the time of Mohammed from the point of view of this world, and without special pleading.

Note: I checked out “The Art of the Metaobject Protocol,” and it recommended that if you’re unfamiliar with CLOS (the Common Lisp Object System) that you learn that before getting into this book. It recommended, “Object-Oriented Programming in Common LISP: A Programmer’s Guide to CLOS,” by Sonya Keene.

As I’ve been taking this track, reconsidering what I think about computer science, software engineering, and what I can do to advance society, making computing a part of that, I’ve been realizing that one of Kay’s points is very important. If we’re going to make things for people to use, we need to understand people well, specifically how the human system interfaces with computer systems, and how that interaction can help people better their condition in our larger system that we call “society” (this includes its economy, but it should include many other social facets), and more broadly, the systems of our planet. This means spending a significant amount of time on other things besides computer stuff. I can tell you from experience, this is a strange feeling, because I feel like I should be spending more time on technical subjects, since that’s what I’ve done in the past, and that’s been the stock in trade of my profession. I want that to be part of my thinking, but not what I eat and sleep.

Related post:

The necessary ingredients of computer science