Certitude, assumptions and the “Silicon Six”

Assumptions save brainpower, but make us stumble

Posted 12/4/19

We’re in the throes of a national epidemic of certitude, which is a good time to think about the danger of assumptions.

Our brains like these mental shortcuts because they allow us to move …

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Certitude, assumptions and the “Silicon Six”

Assumptions save brainpower, but make us stumble

Posted

We’re in the throes of a national epidemic of certitude, which is a good time to think about the danger of assumptions.
Our brains like these mental shortcuts because they allow us to move quickly through the world, but every so often we need a reminder that we don’t always see what we’re looking at.
A simple example: All winter long, commuting to a teaching gig at Western Washington U in Bellingham, I’d catch my toe and trip on my way to the coffee deck of the Coupeville ferry.
With two fake hips and a spare pound or 40, I thought at first it was just old age.
Young friends shot me side-eye when I theorized the stairs were built wrong. “OK boomer” their raised eyebrow said, ”Just raise your toe an inch.”
Then one morning I stumbled in sight of a uniformed ferry officer, who told me that top step is out of sync.
Ian Sterling, the Port Townsend native who speaks for the Washington State Ferries confirmed it’s a known flaw. “Boats are not houses, so you see things you don’t see in a house,” he said.
He said the glitch is likely the result of change-orders during adaption of the design cribbed from an open-water ferry used by the Nantucket Steamboat Authority.
The steps won’t be re-built. Washington State Ferry staff have plastered a warning to the far wall of the staircase in addition to painting a warning on the riser to the top step itself.
After the first time, wouldn’t you think my body or brain would be on alert?
That’s the thing with assumptions. They’re durable.
As we approach a staircase, we feel the first few steps, get into rhythm and repeat.
This allows us to think about and look at other things as we climb, walk, and drive, which works just fine most of the time, saving brainpower, until the step that we are looking right at without seeing it doesn’t fit the assumption and…”oof, excuse me” we stagger gracelessly onto the landing.
There are two great lessons in a stumble.
The first is that we are not, it turns out, video cameras with our neural circuits precisely recording data. Instead, our brains default to assumptions, which works most of the time.
A bit scarier, though, is the way those assumptions make perception imprecise and memory deeply unreliable. The certitude Americans now bring to politics is based on assumptions, not careful observation.
A few years back, I worked on a short film with Prof. Nancy Franklin, a Stony Brook University expert whose research has convinced multiple judicial jurisdictions to rule out eye-witness identification in criminal proceedings.
In case after case, DNA evidence has demolished eyewitness testimony. Intelligent, healthy adults have repeatedly been proven to have picked the wrong person from a line-up, sending innocent men to prison for life.
This is because our short-cutting brain applies assumptions to what we see and hear and is manipulated by emotions we are feeling at the time of perception and by implicit biases we’ve accumulated about the world.
Our memory of those perceptions changes over time, too.
Dr. Franklin finds that each time we pluck a memory out of storage, we put it back slightly changed.
The familiar version of that is Uncle Schmedlapp’s story of his first steelhead, in which the fish gets bigger or he gets younger with each re-telling. Less funny is the way a criminal case either falls apart or grows solid each time a witness is pressed to tell what he saw.
Knowing this, we should be less certain of our perceptions and memories and more humble about our conclusions.
But the tenor of our politics is all about certitude: “I know you are wrong and I will seek to silence or shame you for not seeing what I see.”
To many, the stakes are especially high now, which no doubt justifies in their minds the acidity of their words about fellow citizens: climate change seems to be wreaking ecological disaster, human misery arises, no matter how we mismanage immigration and Congress is locked in a forever-war between parties, with no evidence of good will nor a good-faith search for common ground or even shared facts.
A good deal of the certitude epidemic is being nurtured, for profit, by the Silicon Six, who decide what we see on social media and profit from making sure we get a steady stream of material that confirms our biases instead of challenging our assumptions: Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Alphabet, Susan Wojcicki at YouTube and Jack Dorsey at Twitter.
They have the awesome power to surveil our online actions and then sell political and other messaging campaigns, minutely micro-targeted contacts that reinforce our assumptions.
Attempts so far to regulate this have failed. Facebook sells ad campaigns to Holocaust deniers and to Russian disinformation agents.
As Eli Sanders at The Stranger, a Seattle weekly, has documented repeatedly, Facebook and Google not only break Washington campaign advertising laws, they feel no need to explain.
Which is a great reminder to all of us that we can’t trust assumptions on our way to gathering the information we need to inhabit our democratic role.
Assumptions, about staircases or politics cases, can cause us to stumble and that should make us humble, not certain.
(Dean Miller is the editor of The Leader)

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Justin Hale

The average Americans' opinion is based on whatever the biased, agenda-driven MSM feeds them. Our society is suffering from TMI.

Thursday, December 5, 2019