We Never Think Alone: The Distribution of Human Knowledge

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Only a small portion of the knowledge that humans have acquired resides in your head. Even the brightest of us is mostly ignorant. Despite this fact, we all suffer from the illusion that we know more than we actually do. We suffer from the “knowledge illusion,” in part, because we fail to draw accurate boundaries between the knowledge that we carry in our own heads and the knowledge that resides in the world around us and the minds of others. A wonderful new book by two cognitive scientists, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernback, titled The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, describes the distributed nature of human knowledge and suggests how we can make better use of it.

The Knowledge Illusion

The following four excerpts from the book provide a sense of the authors’ argument:

The human mind is both genius and pathetic, brilliant and idiotic. People are capable of the most remarkable feats, achievements that defy the gods…And yet we are equally capable of the most remarkable demonstrations of hubris and foolhardiness. Each of us is error-prone, sometimes irrational, and often ignorant…And yet human society works amazingly well…

The secret of our success is that we live in a world in which knowledge is all around us. It is in the things we make, in our bodies and workspaces, and in other people. We live in a community of knowledge.

The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, individuals store very little detailed information about the world in their heads. In that sense, people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind.

Being smart is about having the ability to extract deeper, more abstract information from the flood of data that comes into our senses…The mind is busy trying to choose actions by picking out the most useful stuff and leaving the rest behind. Remembering everything gets in the way of focusing on the deeper principles that allow us to recognize how a new situation resembles past situations and what kinds of actions will be effective.

In a world with rapidly increasing stores of information, it is critical that we learn how to find the best information (the signals) among the mounds of meaningless, erroneous, or irrelevant information (the noise) that surrounds us. Individually, we can only be experts in a few domains, so we must identify and rely on the best expertise in other domains. We don’t benefit from more knowledge; we benefit from valid and useful knowledge. One of the great challenges of our time is to find ways to identify, bring together, and encourage the best of what we know.

The power of crowdsourcing and the promise of collaborative platforms suggest that the place to look for real superintelligence is not in a futuristic machine that can outsmart human beings. The superintelligence that is changing the world is the community of knowledge. The great advances in technology aren’t to be found in creating machines with superhuman horsepower; instead, they’ll come from helping information flow smoothly through ever-bigger communities of knowledge and by making collaboration easier. Intelligent technology is not replacing people so much as connecting them.

 This book is well written and accessible. It provided me with many valuable insights. I’m confident that it will do the same for you.

Take care,

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ProbablyWrong
18 days ago
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Peter Singer: The Milo of Philosophers

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Thanks to Louise for alerting me to the Journal of Practical Ethics doing a glossy Q&A with Peter Singer. Singer is a bigot. Philosophy embraces him as a titan of the field, letting his ableism slide merrily by under the glamor of robust debate. Yes, yes, #NotAllPhilosophers

At any rate, this is a long "20-questions" feature with Singer, and I, too, have some questions.

Singer says, among other things, this incredibly damaging response (there's more in the whole article, but I want to zoom in here):
I was assuming that there are other couples who are unable to have their own child, and who would be happy to adopt a child with Down syndrome. If that is the situation, I don’t see why it is selfish to enable a couple to have a child they want to have, and for my wife and myself to conceive another child, who would be very unlikely to have Down syndrome, and so would give us the child we want to have. For me, the knowledge that my child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop. 
“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability. But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.
Unpack: 1) He wouldn't love a child less intelligent than he is. 2) He wouldn't be able to have good conversations (Berube took this apart a decade ago). 3) Disabled people are like dogs and pigs (using ableism to attack specieism).

I may do some longer writing around this essay and its problems, but my real concern isn't with Singer, but with Philosophy. I think of Singer like Milo, saying inflammatory things for attention, protesting "free speech" when called out on his hate or when people advocate to no-platform him.

Imagine if Singer - which he surely would have in another era - was using his academic status to push for race science. Can't you imagine him using this argument, based on assumptions of black inferiority, to work for animal rights using racism? I mean, the suffragists famously demanded white women get the vote because black men did. Would race science exile Singer from the halls of respectability?

My son's full humanity is not a position that is worthy debate, any more than my full humanity as a Jew is. Some positions do not deserve platforms.

Perhaps this is not a person who merits your keynotes, features in the press, adulation in the profession. No matter how edgy he is.

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ProbablyWrong
86 days ago
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Cosign

For moral philosophy to be of value, it must replace moral description (societies don't think disabled/black/female/trans*/... lives matter) with moral imagination (society is better when we we agree that these lives matter, and behave accordingly). My discomfort around people who are different from me is evidence of my moral immaturity, not evidence of my social superiority.
duerig
86 days ago
I agree. Also, his whole stance strikes me as profoundly silly. Ethics does not consist of trolley problems where you sum up the intrinsic value of each set of lives before pulling the lever. A disabled person's life is profoundly valuable to themselves. Whether they happen to be a useful cog in the machine of society is irrelevant.
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Employer-Based Coverage Does Not Equalize Workers’ Access to Health Care

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InsFormSmallOne reason public policy favors employer-based health benefits instead of individually owned health insurance is the former is supposed to equalize access to health care among workers of all income levels. Insurers usually demand 75 percent of workers be covered, which leads to benefit design that attracts almost all workers to be covered.

Employers do this by charging the same premium for all workers but only having workers pay a small share of the premium through payroll deduction. Most is paid by the firm. Last year, the average total premium for a single worker in an employer-based plan was $6,435, but the worker only paid $1,129 directly while the employer paid $5,306.

Although this suppresses workers’ wages, workers cannot go to their employers and demand money instead of the employers’ share of premium. The tax code also encourages this, by exempting employer-based benefits from taxable income.

Does this equal access to care? Not at all, according to new research:

When demographics and other characteristics were controlled for, employees in the lowest-wage group had half the usage of preventive care (19 percent versus 38 percent), nearly twice the hospital admission rate (31 individuals per 1,000 versus 17 per 1,000), more than four times the rate of avoidable admissions (4.3 individuals per 1,000 versus 0.9 per 1,000), and more than three times the rate of emergency department visits (370 individuals per 1,000 versus 120 per 1,000) relative to top-wage-group earners.

(Bruce W. Sherman, et al., “Health Care Use and Spending Patterns Vary by Wage Level in Employer-Sponsored Plans,” Health Affairs, vol. 26, no. 2 (February 2017): 250-257.)

The reasons are not fully explained. Nevertheless, this research suggests employer-based benefits are not a good equalizer of access to health care, and the tax code’s prejudice in favor of those benefits and against individual health insurance should be revisited.

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ProbablyWrong
86 days ago
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From the department of non sequitur conclusions. Is this guy delusional or mendacious? Low income workers have crappy health insurance, on average, yes. Because they have less bargaining power.

Improving tax deductions for individual health insurance won't help low income workers. 1) They cannot afford it. 2) They have low marginal tax rates, so tax deductions don't offer adequate cost relief.

I keep reading this shite to remind myself just how utterly worthless conservative alternatives to Obamacare really are.
freeAgent
86 days ago
Recently, workers of all incomes have been getting "crappier" health insurance. Coverage is highly regulated under Obamacare, so what's covered is pretty much the same from top to bottom. The big differentiators are (1)premiums/deductibles and, to a lesser degree, (2)networks. Even high-income workers have been getting moved into HDHPs in increasing numbers. They simply have the means to pay deductibles that reach into the thousands. I think this article was fairly narrowly focused on the tax-deductibility of employer-provided insurance vs. the non-tax deductibility of insurance you purchase for yourself. No matter your income, that particular element of our tax code is stupid and unfair.
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Merrill: "The undocumented economy"

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A few excerpts from a Merrill Lynch research note: The undocumented economy
Let’s consider three scenarios:

1.Improved border security and more aggressive deportations that lower the number of undocumented workers by 200,000 per year. This could be achieved by increasing annual deportations from about 400,000 to 500,000 and stopping 100,000 more people per year at the border.

2. Cut the number of undocumented workers in half over a four year period through tougher enforcement.

3. Effectively eliminate all undocumented workers over a four year period.
...
In the first scenario the economic impacts are likely to be very small. ...  The story is very different under the second and third scenarios. Undocumented immigrants tend to specialize in certain kinds of jobs. Hence cutting the labor force in these areas could hurt the productivity of complementary workers causing indirect loses beyond the direct labor force reduction. ... With full deportation an outright recession seems plausible, as output would be disrupted and as the Fed may be unwilling to act because a labor shortage would mean a surge in wage and price inflation.
...
Undocumented immigrants are a relatively small part of the overall labor force [and] our baseline is relatively benign, but we see significant downside risks to that baseline.
emphasis added
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duerig
86 days ago
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This seems very plausible to me. Even setting aside humanitarian concerns, you can't reduce the population of a country by several percent without causing a big economic dislocation. Maybe we will see the return of stagflation if Comrade Trump's policies are effective.
ProbablyWrong
86 days ago
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Homeland Security Memo on Actual Sources of Terrorism

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The memo is here. Based on analysis of actual identified threats and incidents relevant to the U.S., the top seven nations are Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Uzbekistan. Although all but two (Cuba and Ethiopia) are predominantly-Muslim countries, there is not much overlap with the countries named in the Muslim travel ban. For instance, Iran and Syria are not on this list.

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swcope
88 days ago
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North Carolina
ProbablyWrong
88 days ago
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The FBI and Religion Is Studied

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Salon today has posted an interesting article titled How the FBI Is Hobbled by Religious Illiteracy.  Much of it is an interview with University of Pennsylvania Prof. Steven Weitzman.  Introducing the interview, interviewer Emma Green says in part:
The story of the FBI and religion is not a series of isolated mishaps, argues a new book of essays edited by Steven Weitzman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Sylvester A. Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University. Over its 109 years of existence, these historians and their colleagues argue, the Bureau has shaped American religious history through targeted investigations and religiously tinged rhetoric about national security.
At times, the Bureau has operated according to an explicit vision of protecting Christianity, as it did during the tenure of J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the FBI. But in other cases, it has operated with religious ignorance.
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ProbablyWrong
88 days ago
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