What I'm Reading (Aug. 25)

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Certainty and extremism
Will we ever know the origin of COVID-19?
What can the Talmud teach us about Twitter and Facebook?
And now, a moment with Hans Rosling.

“Regrettably, it is now apparent that reasonable, intellectually charitable discussions between progressives and conservatives are quite scarce in many places – leaving little room for compromise or legislative success. Many people hate those who disagree with them, perhaps seeing no possible route to the other side’s political conclusions other than moral aberrance or callous self-interest. Accompanying this vitriol and anomie, it would seem, is a widespread lack of scepticism toward one’s own political beliefs. Some people are not just confident, but absolutely, 100 percent certain that their views about how to order society are optimal. For these people, extremism and animosity might seem to be the only logical route. The philosopher of science Karl Popper went so far as to argue that absolute certainty is the foundational component of totalitarianism: if one is sure that one’s political philosophy will lead to the best possible future for humankind, all manner of terrible acts become justifiable in service of the greater good.”

I’ve written about how extreme points of view are often confounded by a lack of fundamental understanding and abiding overconfidence in their knowledge. I am not alone in that belief, and this holds equally true for both poles of the political spectrum. From Psyche, Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism


“This is not about placing blame,” says Kristian Andersen, a professor of immunology and microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute in California. “This is about understanding in as much detail as we can the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.”


Did it jump from an animal to us? What was the role of Wuhan’s wet market or its Virology Institute? It is a complicated story, made less clear by the partisan debate and the obfuscation of involved scientists. Wired tries to make the complex less so, The Origins of Covid-19 Are More Complicated Than Once Thought


“Precisely when we seem most connected, we are most distant; precisely when we have all the tools to free ourselves and gain exposure to the wider world, we find ourselves imprisoned and disconnected. A new economy, equipped with new technology, has created a very old politics. Tribal politics. …

Technology can enrich our lives and fill it with things that were not there before. But it can also impoverish us and take things away from us.2 In his book Understanding Media, McLuhan explained the difference between what technology gives and what it takes away. What it gives us is bright and shiny, but what it takes away is obscure and practically invisible. It gives quickly but takes slowly. Its advantages are therefore seen and spoken about, while its disadvantages are mostly unseen and much less spoken about. This asymmetry creates the illusion that technology is an unmitigated bonus for humanity. But in practice, it always comes at a price. McLuhan argued that history is shaped not so much by ideas as by the tools we use to disseminate ideas. In his view, the medium exerts a greater influence than the message. The events that changed history were not the birth of monotheism, the emergence of humanism, and the growth of feminism, but the revolutionary advent of printing, radio, and television; not the creation of new ideas, but the emergence of new media which shape our very ways of thinking.”


The Talmud contains the commentary on Jewish law "beyond the ten commandments." The Talmudic tradition runs deep. It is oft said that a discussion between three Talmudic scholars will yield four opinions. Here is a Talmudic consideration, a commentary on digital media. From Sources, Our Technology Sickness—and How to Heal It


“Basing its projection on historic patterns, the U.N. tells us that world population will have surpassed 10 billion during the 2050s. The big question though is how much their computer models should also recognize recent anomalies. Birth rates have been falling. Families are smaller. Education is on the rise. Using past trends, the U.N.says they recognize all of these changes. However, demographers suggest their models insufficiently see where the world is heading.”


Is it poverty or population that is the limiting factor for our species? Are you a Malthusian? From Econolife, Are We Near Peak Population? Most importantly, you must watch the video at the end of the wonderful Hans Rosling demonstrating how much our world has changed.