Monthly Archives: April 2014

And I was like “whoa” and he was like “whoa” and the sevenheaded beast was like “blergh”.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a trained scientist and a hardcore atheist historical materialist. And, like me, comes from a socialist tradition. She has written one of the best, most no-nonsense pieces on having cancer I’ve read, and she has taken part in the shredding of some of the most persistent irrational myths in modern American life: the “power” of positive thinking and the possibility of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps when the game is rigged against you.

So imagine my surprise when I read a piece by her in The New York Times on her mystical experiences in childhood and adolescence.

Something happened when I was 17 that shook my safely rationalist worldview and left me with a lifelong puzzle. Years later, I learned that this sort of event is usually called a mystical experience, and I can see in retrospect that the circumstances had been propitious: Thanks to a severely underfunded and poorly planned skiing trip, I was sleep-deprived and probably hypoglycemic that morning in 1959 when I stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, too vast and violent to hold on to, too heartbreakingly beautiful to let go of.  It seemed to me that whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze. I felt ecstatic and somehow completed, but also shattered.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and talk to Barbara Ehrenreich once at a thing, and this is about as far from what I imagined her inner life to be like. And yet, she expresses something I find extremely important and that those of us, like me, who are atheists and rationalists need to grapple with. And the thing is, while I suspect that her talk of conscious matter and bursting forth of possibilities won’t necessarily lead anywhere, I think she is spot on right, as she said in a recent interview with NPR, that

I think I have a responsibility to report things, even if they’re anomalous. Even if they don’t fit whatever theory I had in my mind or most people have or anything. It’s in that spirit that I take this risk.

That is precisely the spirit of rational inquiry which also lead me to insist that the humanities and the sciences need to engage in dialogue, as is now finally happening in neuroscience and psychology, precisely the fields in which these fields of interest meet. But we should certainly expand the circle of subjects we can discuss in this way.

As Ehrenreich mentions, rationalists like Virginia Woolf (who famously heard birds singing to her in Greek during psychotic episodes) or the exceptionally atheist writer and scientist Sam Harris have written about mystical and numinous experiences. I think Sam Harris — a man I disagree about most things with — is right when he says that the rationalists and the atheists need to be able to grapple with and engage with the language of spiritual experience. Of the transcendent, the mystical and the spiritual. These experiences are real  — I’ve had them myself — and while they should almost certainly be explained as emergent properties of the physical brain interacting with the environment, that’s not the language in which those experiences are best discussed. To people, as I say, these are real experiences, a presence in their lives as clear and real as whatever you are reading this on. Harris talks of altered consciousness as what humans do, the ordinary business of living. If we dont’ accept that, we are being irrational.

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So anyway, to business:

Please, can I have some facts, sir?

You’ve probably been all over this already, but I’ve been following Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias’ new media venture Vox far too closely over the past few days since its launch. It holds quite a lot of promise, and so far seems to be doing everything right and quite a few things new. I’m starting to think they might wind up subtly and permanently altering the nature of journalism itself, and probably for the better. At the same time it serves as an occasion to look at an underlying problem with a certain kind of journalism.

Vox — latin for voice — is trying to more explicitly perform one of the basic tasks of journalism as its core function: explaining the world. It is moving journalism a little nudge closer to the work of doing research or writing an encyclopaedia entry. I think this is a good thing. I think the best definition of journalism is best thought of as being for the public what intelligence agencies like the CIA or MI5 are to policy makers and law enforcement. They are open, democratic information agencies that brief us so that we understand the things we need to understand to make decisions.

The FAQ explains the explaining of Vox with an interesting explanation.

The media is excellent at reporting the news and pretty good at adding commentary atop the news. What’s lacking is an organization genuinely dedicated to explaining the news. That is to say, our end goal isn’t telling you what just happened, or how we feel about what just happened, it’s making sure you understand what just happened.

We’re going to deliver a lot of contextual information that traditional news stories aren’t designed to carry, and we’re hiring journalists who really know the topics they cover. There’s no way we’ll be able to help readers understand issues if we haven’t done the work to understand them ourselves.

They also promise formal exploration of the article format:

Our commitment to explaining the news is a commitment to an outcome not a commitment to any particular article format. We do think, however, that the traditional article format is ripe for reinvention.

In journalism, you’ll sometimes hear articles about hard topics referred to as “vegetables” or “the spinach” — the idea being that readers don’t like those subjects but they should be reading about them anyway. Our view is that there’s no important topic that can’t be made interesting to the audience. If we’re writing about something important — something that matters in people’s lives — and we’ve made it boring then that failure is on us, not on our readers.

Vegetables can be cooked poorly. But they can also be roasted to perfection with a drizzle of olive oil and hint of sea salt.

I’ve been waiting for something like this to come along. Journalism has gotten so fragmented and impermanent because of medium constraints and the hunting of clicks. All, paradoxically, while moving into a medium which has both permanence and updateability as part of its attraction. I’m pleased to see that capacity leveraged to defragment the information we are presented with. One of the central innovations of Vox is that each major topic they cover will come with a set of “cards” which explain the broader story in a quick and focused manner. They seem to be making these on a lot of stories, even on stories they haven’t covered with regular journalism yet, as is the case with this very handy one on #Benghazi. The cards do frustratingly present both sides of the debates and seem unwilling to declare their stance completely.

The interesting thing is that Ezra Klein, the founder, wrote, as the first story on the site, a dystopian and depressed manifesto which had none of the optimism and energy Klein projects in the videos. In it, Klein basically uses new research into psychological decision making processes and comes to the conclusion that information and facts make politically active people change their minds less, not more.

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

There is a sense then, I think, in which Klein understands that to make politics smarter we have to play the long game, changing discourses over years and decades, as is happening with, say, homosexuality or drug policy. And of gradually building and shaping institutions which generate good outcomes, rather than thinking that people will spontaneously get the challenges of the time. Klein gets the futility and slowness of democratic work, and that’s something he brings to the work of Vox. He’s institution-building. This is a good thing.

This is why I’m much more thrilled about Vox than about the other site in the same explaining vein which has recently popped up, Nate Silver’s at ESPN. The site, interestingly dissected by Malcolm Harris at Al Jazeera along with Vox (pre-launch), is basically run by people who seem fundamentally to not get this. They seem to think (I’m simplifying) that data and models explain the world and that this will make the world better. But Nate Silver is a smart guy, and I’m hoping he can iterate through a few generations of the site and get to this understanding of how people change their minds, too.

Here’s his manifesto, What The Fox Knows

As my book describes, predictions in the sciences (especially the social sciences) are often fairly poor. They usually get better after repeated trials and iterations. But they require a lot of work. One of our sports journalists, Benjamin Morris, suggests that you have almost no hope of beating Las Vegas unless you’ve spent at least 100 hours studying the betting line in question. I can imagine a few exceptions, but it’s a wise rule of thumb.

By contrast, in conventional journalism, predictions are often treated as a parlor game, involving little effort and less accountability. (A variety of studies on the predictions made by McLaughlin Group panelists, for instance, find that they are no more accurate than random guesses.) Predictions are usually outsourced to opinion journalists, who may have less subject-matter knowledge than reporters do.

To reiterate: It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But one of the potential advantages of data journalism is that it generalizes better than traditional approaches, particularly as data sets increase in scale to become larger and more complex.

Which brings me to my last point, which I’m absolutely certain many people will already have made, which is this: this kind of “actually” journalism, as Harris calls it — maybe we should call it is journalism — needs to be mixed in with ought journalism. We need journalism with a moral centre to connect the facts with the values. We need activistic journalists and commentators. People like Glenn Greenwald,  or Andrew Sullivan. Or, I guess, Ezra Klein. People who are capable of making you understand the values of an issue.

We don’t change our minds with our minds, we change them with our entire bodies: limbic systems, blood pressure, adrenaline levels and skin conductivity. We need persuasion and rhetoric. We need morality and values. We need to feel it in order to get real. This all needs to be ground together with the explanations of Vox and the predictive data modelling of 538. If not, we won’t get anywhere. And as Nate Silver points out, traditional moralists and commentators need to learn from the explainers just as much as the explainers need to listen to the moralists. Without them, they’ll both be on thin ice.