Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part II)

One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).

This complexity requires informed and thoughtful policymaking, an understanding of how the various aspects of our shared environment interact, if we are to avoid unintended and very harmful consequences.

Unfortunately, we have elected a President and numerous lawmakers who are not up to the task, to put it as delicately as possible. They are supported by voters who dismiss people who do have expertise, people who actually know things, as “elitist.”

A couple of examples: a while back, the New York Times ran an article about automation, addressing a number of likely consequences of new AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies:

A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better. They are only tools, not a competing form of intelligence. But they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.

It is imperative that we turn our attention to these imminent challenges.

What is artificial intelligence today? Roughly speaking, it’s technology that takes in huge amounts of information from a specific domain (say, loan repayment histories) and uses it to make a decision in a specific case (whether to give an individual a loan) in the service of a specified goal (maximizing profits for the lender). Think of a spreadsheet on steroids, trained on big data. These tools can outperform human beings at a given task.

I have posted previously about the potential consequences of AI and automation generally for job creation. The number of jobs lost to automation already dwarfs those lost to outsourcing and trade–and yet, activists on both the Right and Left continue to focus only on trade policy.

This kind of A.I. is spreading to thousands of domains (not just loans), and as it does, it will eliminate many jobs. Bank tellers, customer service representatives, telemarketers, stock and bond traders, even paralegals and radiologists will gradually be replaced by such software. Over time this technology will come to control semiautonomous and autonomous hardware like self-driving cars and robots, displacing factory workers, construction workers, drivers, delivery workers and many others.

Unlike the Industrial Revolution and the computer revolution, the A.I. revolution is not taking certain jobs (artisans, personal assistants who use paper and typewriters) and replacing them with other jobs (assembly-line workers, personal assistants conversant with computers). Instead, it is poised to bring about a wide-scale decimation of jobs — mostly lower-paying jobs, but some higher-paying ones, too.

If Donald Trump has ever addressed this issue, or suggested that he is even aware of it, it has escaped my notice.

Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life is, if anything, more relevant today than when it was written. What Hofstadter and others who have addressed this particular element of American culture failed to foresee, however, was a time in which the federal government (together with a good number of state governments–Texas comes immediately to mind) would be controlled by people who neither understand the world they live in nor know what they don’t know.

Science Magazine  recently reported on the EPA’s dismissal of 38 science advisors.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt continues to clean house at a key advisory committee, signaling plans to drop several dozen current members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), according to an email yesterday from a senior agency official.

Unlike most of Trump’s cabinet, Pruitt is proving to be effective. Unfortunately, he is proving effective in his efforts to destroy the EPA–not just by denying the reality of climate change science, but by rolling back regulations that protect air and water quality. He appears to be operating on a theory common to this administration: if a reality is uncongenial, ignore it or deny its existence. If evidence contradicts your worldview, dismiss it.

Yesterday, in a reference to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I observed that science and reality are true whether or not you believe them.

The worst thing about giving simple and/or corrupt people the power to run a government they do not understand is that complicated realities continue to be realities, and the longer we fail to engage those realities, the worse the consequences.


  1. Thinking globally, thinking beyond our part of global participation, thinking well beyond Donald Trump, is it possible that at some point in time that our globe/our planet will no longer be able to sustain all its inhabitants? Is it possible that at some point in time, scientific researchers will broach the sensitive and difficult subject of population control? Are global resources finite?

    I’m not a scientist, but I do have an innate curiosity about the above questions.

  2. BSH,

    There is no point in the future when our planet will no longer be able to sustain itself. We passed that point years ago. We passed it when we over fished the oceans, dumped every horrid chemical into our waters, added more and more species to the extinct list, allowed religions to dictate policy on birth control, let the accumulation of wealth be the standard for all decisions pertaining to land use, and refused to curb the our lust for violence.

    Scientists have been broaching the subject of population control since at least the 1980s, however, such a movement is in direct conflict with our greedy, capitalistic system. And yes, global resources are finite.

  3. The world today is much too small for any nation to think it can go it alone. I think the results of last week’s G-20 meeting. While here at home, we were all focused on the big meeting of Evil and Ignorance, the rest of the world went on without us. I wonder how the dairy farmers feel about 45 now? It has taken less than 6 months for the US to become irrelevant under our new leadership. That’s really impressive.

  4. “One of the defining features of our time is increasing complexity; the rapid growth and sophistication of technology, the globalization of economics, science and even governance, in short, the accelerating production of vast amounts of knowledge that no one person can hope to master (or even identify).”

    The above copied and past paragraph is an excellent definition of “getting ahead of ourselves”; or, creating a world of technology far beyond the comprehension of the human brain…other than that of Stephen Hawking, perhaps. Artificial intelligence has also moved far beyond our current justice system for protection/prevention of widespread abuses against the majority of Americans. The artificially intelligent leader of this country, elected by a public who obviously believes the more money a person has, the smarter they must be is using artificial intelligence to advance themselves and continue over-filling their personal coffers. The money behind and within the Trump family and this administration can well afford to buy and spread artificial intelligence around the world…unless the possibility that their actual lack of intelligence is catching up with them at this past G20 Conference. The United States of America did not fare well this past week in Poland or Germany and culminated with Ivanka Trump Kuschner attending a meeting of world leaders where she had no business being to represent America and Americans.

    No amount of artificial intelligence can or will slow or stop the dumbing down of American school children when Trump and DeVos impose their “God’s Kingdom” of fully vouchered system of education on this nation. Again; a case of believing those with the most money are the smartest…currently, that has proven to be true for they ARE in control. Their use of current and future technology will not advance knowledge beyond the teaching of creationism as written in the many forms of the Bible and the rewriting of history books to prove the Christian values of slavery.

    We need to find loopholes (there are always loopholes within all laws) to stave off the negative effects of artificial intelligence and use it to advance all of the sciences. How deep will the Republican “health care” system delve into medical research along with ending or making cost prohibitive any form of health care? Healthy minds and healthy bodies promote progress for all people.

    BSH; I am glad you broached this subject: “Is it possible that at some point in time, scientific researchers will broach the sensitive and difficult subject of population control?”

    How many people at this time are being kept “alive” by machines and feeding tubes who, given the choice, would not opt for this “artificially intelligent form of survival” The Terry Chavo case in Florida comes to mind when Gov. Jeb Bush stepped in to take control and support maintaining her feeding tube which lasted for 15 years. The autopsy proved what HER doctors had said all along; she had less than half of her brain remaining when she finally died. There is also the Sarah Palin interference in the writing of the ACA; removing a vital portion of the final bill with her ignorant and untrue claim of “death squads”.

    I apologize for going on so long but these issues, due to the current administration’s lack of humanity, are heavy on my mind, my heart and my soul day and night. We are being buried alive and it appears at this time, there is no way to end our untimely interment.

  5. If every conversation surrounding global sustainability for all its future inhabitants is reduced to a USA specific partisan argument, then the future peoples of the world don’t stand a chance of enjoying a sustainable lifestyle. Is it possible for us in the US to think beyond partisan politics, to think beyond our petty likes and dislikes, and to think about the global greater good?

  6. BSH, I think what Prof. Kennedy, Theresa, and JoAnn are trying to point out is that we in the US are trapped behind partisan politics and can’t see the global part of the problem. There are politicians, advisors, and media figures who are actively encouraging the US to repudiate any kind of global interaction. And, the message is falling on fertile ground. We can’t move on climate, AI changes, population, air and water quality, and food supplies until we can find leaders who will unflinchingly look at the data and, then, unflinchingly tell us the truth. We, in turn, need to believe them and the proof that we see around us.
    So, yes, partisan politics in driving this bus.

  7. Jane, thinking globally is hard stuff, isn’t it? We, in the US, are so accustomed to our ego driven consideration of every large issue in the binary terms of partisan politics, Democrat vs Republican, that we forget the global peoples of the world who don’t give a doodly squat about our beloved partisan affiliations. Quite simply, we in the US have never considered that our infatuation with partisan politics amounts to a big nothing burger with the rank and file people of the globe, not the global leaders but the rank and file people.

  8. Some food for thought :

    “This analysis suggests that Trump is the product not just of a fluke election or a racist and sexist backlash, but the culmination of late capitalism. This has profound implications for how we see Trump—and how we oppose him. We have to focus less on Trump’s personal flaws and more on the world that has enabled him. His habitual prevarications aren’t simply the result of his defective character, but an effective tactic. In a world where commerce and media (including social media) reward performance above truth telling, it’s not surprising that a figure like Trump rises to the top. Any moralistic condemnation of Trump is incomplete without acknowledging the institutions (notably the media) that both created him and allowed him to thrive.”

    Taken From this article..

    This quote from Chris Hedges is appropriate..

    “We live in two Americas. One America, now the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world. It can cope with complexity and has the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth. The other America, which constitutes the majority, exists in a non-reality-based belief system. This America, dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information, has severed itself from the literate, print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic, childish narratives and clichés. It is thrown into confusion by ambiguity, nuance and self-reflection.”

    This isn’t exclusive to wingnuts ; )

  9. Sorry Sheila, but your post reads like partisan drivel. “Let me lead because you’re too dumb to run this country.”

    Pruitt and others of Bannon Ideology fit perfectly with the Libertarian Koch brothers who are running the entire country at this moment. Their companies are private so they compete against the Wall Street crowd who runs the revolving door from Washington to New York and back again.

    This Elite crowd has been running the country for generations. Basically, since it’s inception. The Founders weren’t appointed by the people!

    These people understand science and progress, but they are individualists, not egalitarian. They could care less about the collective of “we the people” which is basically a fraudulent statement anyway. We aren’t a democracy.

    They believe in profits – the mission of a corporation is to maximize profits to the shareholders. Period.

    Who do you think is picking up the slack for states defunding universities? Whose perspective is being advocated by the business departments in exchange for private donations? Who also influences policymaking in our statehouses and D.C.?

    If this country was run by the people’s representatives, there wouldn’t be income inequality. If our press was free and independent, the people would be informed. Instead, we get propaganda and manipulation from both sides of the political spectrum.

    If we resembled a democracy, the technological gains in productivity over the past four decades would be going to the Working Class. Instead, it’s gone 100% to CEOs and shareholders.

    The progress you mentioned isn’t even measured properly in the United States. The quality of life for average Americans has NO measurement because it would show just how bad things are in the USA. Instead, we get tons of propaganda and GDP measuring growth – not progressivism or quality of life. Growth.

    When our infrastructure and park systems crumble, it doesn’t show up in GDP. However, if private prisons grow across the country, “Our economy is growing.” 😉

    Our entire culture (Neoliberalism) is based on making life great for the Economically Elite – the Oligarchs. It’s been that way since day one. Progressivism is ensuring their lives improve and their offspring enjoy their riches without paying “death taxes”.

    The people find themselves in another Gilded Age when our country is run by Robber Barons. The media is nothing more than propaganda tainted with yellow journalism. What’s worse is the political party supposedly representing the people is run by Wall Street and the Deep State who both fight progressivism.

    That’s our reality…

  10. I am aware of our “global connections” and how vital they are to survival of the human race; Nelson Mandela’s world view philosophy was honed during his decades in that South African prison. It helped make him one of our great world leaders who valued all “global connections”. Where our lines should have been drawn before reaching the current state of affairs; is the moving of too many American jobs out of America to further enrich the already over-rich. Losing strong unions was and is a factor; the wealthy stronghold on this country was never more evident than with the election of Trump and his entire family plus the Congressional acceptance and full support of his cabinet appointments.

    Bringing it closer to home; his interference with the aid of Pence, months prior to their inauguration, regarding the “alternative facts” of salvation of jobs at Carrier has indebted all tax payers in Indiana to honor their debt of millions. Our gas tax just went up to pay for maintaining and replacing crumbling infrastructure which is already included in our tax base on numerous levels. I-69…no need to say more on that issue.

    Another global factor, connected to immigration, is the increase in the rising costs of everything we buy due to multiple languages on all products. A sad commentary was the bold print on the box of the TV I purchased stating, “Assembled in America”. BFD; if you don’t understand that acronym…ask around. Yes; we are tied to global connections vital to survival but how much damage has Trump done to that safety issue since January 20, 2017?

    These are global, national and local realities today and into the future; how will Ivanka and Jared deal with these issues on our account?

  11. Back to A.I. Who should control this expanded technology? How is it to be kept out of the hands of criminals… and criminal states? How do we keep our humanity after we have turned our minds over to machines?

  12. JoAnn, forget Jared and Ivanka as they’re both brief players strutting their stuff on a limited, finite stage of partisan politics. Think beyond the Trump family if you wish to have your thoughts directed toward a greater good.

  13. I’m thinking practically here. If you take it as a given that the people and processes Mr. Pruitt is taking out of the EPA were doing good, then shouldn’t someone be gathering them up and carrying on the work? A kind of EPA in exile, if you will? I am aware it would have no regulatory powers, but it could well have considerable persuasive powers and it would mean the work would be not be behind and/or undone on some anticipated future day when someone like Mr. Pruitt no longer is in charge there. Anybody know any universities or friendly billionaires in need of a new project?

  14. Nice piece, Sheila, but any discussion about complexity in our “modern” societies has to start with a perspective of how we evolved, both biologically and socially.

    The best reference I can offer, besides my own books, is one written by Rebecca Costa: “The Watchman’s Rattle”. Costa is a socio-biologist who traces how today’s memes originated in our earliest days as a species.

  15. There was once a view that we need not fear innovation because (and what the Luddites didn’t get was that) the new jobs created equalled those that were lost. That view persists in some circles today, and it is now back in the Luddites court because the supposed Newtonian application of equilibrium of “for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction” as applied in physics and found its way into economics,has little to no application today (if it ever had application). Automation today is a far cry from steam-driven looms of Leeds and Manchester in that it is now and will be dismembering human labor in nor just textiles but across the board. I understand, for instance, that Silicon Valley is now teaching emotional intelligence to robots, so what does this tell us of human careers in psychiatry and psychology? Can’t happen? That’s what we said at th time of Dick Tracy’s “two-way wrist radios.” With such a massive invasion of what we thought were exclusive preserves for human labor, no one can know the socio-economic outcome since it is difficult to come up with a model in an entirely new social and economic environment, one we cannot know and which has no history. I look for welfare on a massive scale as we transition into another new means of producing goods and services and have to wonder what a post-automation socielty would look like.

  16. Two apropos comments from Facebook today.

    “IMO the question is can free will limit human population to what is sustainable before resource shortage and overcrowding does.”

    “It’s definitely iffy.”

    “If/when we get to letting resource availability solve our problem we are definitely not going to like her ways.”

    “We think money but reality knows resource limits will win.”

    At this point in history we will learn the answer to an existential problem. Are we smart enough to survive?

    In spite of those never been higher stakes we have stumbled and installed massive incompetence at governance in the US.

    What we don’t know is the time schedule of the reckoning. Will 4 years of nothing bring on the earth’s solution or have we not yet used up all of our cushion.

    Or is the problem beyond us no matter?

  17. What thought–full and –provoking comments and posting. I remain in a pensive and suspended state after all these. Thanks to all.

Comments are closed.