Taste dynamics, opinion dynamics, sincerely-held-belief dynamics etc

Placeholder for the complex case of diffusion of innovation where the innovations in question are beliefs. Which beliefs prosper and which fail? How much does social dynamics determine how much a belief prospers? How much does factuality? How much earthy folk wisdom?

Innovation diffusion theory

Models such as the Bass diffusion model impose an epidemiological structure on the contagion of products, with a survival analysis flavour. See innovation diffusion.

Invasive arguments

In ecology we have invasive species. In rhetoric we have invasive arguments. I am collecting a library of these.

Toxoplasma of rage

Toxoplasma of rage by Scott Alexander:

More important, unarmed black people are killed by police or other security officers about twice a week according to official statistics, and probably much more often than that. You’re saying none of these shootings, hundreds each year, made as good a flagship case as Michael Brown? In all this gigantic pile of bodies, you couldn’t find one of them who hadn’t just robbed a convenience store? Not a single one who didn’t have ten eyewitnesses and the forensic evidence all saying he started it?

I propose that the Michael Brown case went viral — rather than the Eric Garner case or any of the hundreds of others — because of the PETA Principle. It was controversial. A bunch of people said it was an outrage. A bunch of other people said Brown totally started it, and the officer involved was a victim of a liberal media that was hungry to paint his desperate self-defence as racist, and so the people calling it an outrage were themselves an outrage. Everyone got a great opportunity to signal allegiance to their own political tribe and discuss how the opposing political tribe were vile racists / evil race-hustlers. There was a steady stream of potentially triggering articles to share on Facebook to provoke your friends and enemies to counter-share articles that would trigger you.


Is belief a thing related to true states of the world, or it is a pure signifier of group membership, or something else again? Surely belief is a complicated phenomenon, but working out what aggregate of causes underlies any given belief is difficult for us for any given instance. The experience of having a belief is the same, as seen from inside our skulls regardless of what causes it.

The function of belief in individuals

David Banks’s diatribe depicts a particular kind of strategic belief:

“[Radiolab recasts] the political as endlessly unresolved scientific controversies, and act as science concern trolls,” he claims. These “explainerist” nuggets of satisfying factiness - why are they popular? One answer might be that they are a good marker of membership in a tribe that likes a certain kind of cocktail conversation.

What kind of beliefs prosper in society? What is the function of our truth claims? When should you believe “true” things, and what are true things anyway? Are true things about the objects of science the same as true things about society?

Goal: find a way of navigating the pragmatic functions of belief that sidestep the divisions in this anecdote:

I know this sounds like a story from some bad conservative novel, but it is not unheard of for rooms full of PhDs to applaud when someone says that, for example, witchcraft is just another way of knowledge and that disputing factual claims to its power is cultural hegemony.

To my ears it’s the emphases that make this sound uncomfortable, rather than the broad-stroke outline. On one hand I think that empirical fact is special in having a reality independent of human existence. On the other hand, I don’t suppose any of our epistemological methods give us perfect access to the reality I posit. Having claimed my beliefs are not, with 100% certainty, raw and unmediated rays of truth, I have opened the door to negotiating how certain my beliefs are, and admitting that other perspectives might have a point that I cannot dismiss a priori. I am all for admitting that our beliefs are uncertain and our categories subject to revision, otherwise why would I bother with statistics, which is my day job? Any specific claim generated by witchcraft is going to achieve a pretty low prior weighting in my decisions, however.

Also, how about beliefs that are not about facts as such? Does human knowledge transmission at large deal mostly in transmission of precise factual claims about reproducible experiments, or is there a whole bunch of other stuff going on with an indirect relationship to facts about gross physical reality, and some kind of active role in creating whatever passes for facts in the negotiated social reality?

Option B. We need the tools unpack the other propensities in the uses of the language around belief, and disentangle what is going with cheap talk and signalling. We do deploy belief in a variety of ways, often emotional, often figurative. 1

How good are we at forming good facty beliefs? Scott Alexander found the irritating case study of bodybuilders suggests…. tl;dr: We are not very good at facty beliefs?

Antonio García Martínez, in The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, belabours the point that faith-based engagement is predominantly how we engage with the world. Or, as Herbert Simon and Eliezer Yudkowsky could have co-authored, belief is how a heuristic feels from the inside.

Belief and group identity

Related, the levels of simulacra model attempts to dissect this in terms of how we express beliefs. At the other end of that link is an nifty analysis of using beliefs about COVID-19 as a test case. I find this analysis a more powerful way of understanding our curious expression of beliefs than bullshit-based analysis, which is a blunter tool (and also tends to be used to imply that my opponent is doing bullshitting and not me, which seems unlikely, knowing myself.

Ben Sixsmith reviews “Strange Rites” by Tara Isabela Burton:

Saying that something not explicitly religious has “become a religion” has become a mark of pseudo-cleverness. By “religious,” people tend to mean irrational, tribal, and devotional — and in aiming the adjective at phenomena they think little of, they show it is inherently pejorative. Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites has the virtue of assuming humanity is sufficiently “religious” that such qualities, among others, defy transcendence. She asks not “is this religious” but “what does it mean for this to be religious.”[…]

He has analysis of his own of dynamics:

Participation in online communities requires far less personal commitment than those of real life. And commitment has often cloaked hypocrisy. Men could play the role of God-fearing family men in public, for example, while cheating on their wives and abusing their kids. Being a respectable member of their community depended, to a great extent, on being a family man, but being a respectable member of online right-wing communities depends only on endorsing the concept.

Another foray into this kind of idea that I ran into in the wild is M. Taylor Saotome-Westlake’s Book Review: Charles Murray’s Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class. They analyse a co-ordination-on-belief problem., from an economics-of-coordination angle, with the particular interesting example of taboos in discussing psychometrics:

And that’s where the blank slate doctrine absolutely shines—it’s the Schelling point for preventing group conflicts! (A Schelling point is a choice that’s salient as a focus for mutual expectations: what I think that you think that I think… &c. we’ll choose.) If you admit that there could differences between groups, you open up the questions of in what exact traits and of what exact magnitudes, which people have an incentive to lie about to divert resources and power to their group by establishing unfair conventions and then misrepresenting those contingent bargaining equilibria as some “inevitable” natural order.

If you’re afraid of purported answers being used as a pretext for oppression, you might hope to make the question un-askable. Can’t oppress people on the basis of race if race doesn’t exist! Denying the existence of sex is harder—which doesn’t stop people from occasionally trying. […]

The taboo mostly only applies to psychological trait differences, both because those are a sensitive subject, and because they’re easier to motivatedly see what you want to see: whereas things like height or skin tone can be directly seen and uncontroversially measured with well-understood physical instruments (like a meterstick or digital photo pixel values), psychological assessments are much more complicated and therefore hard to detach from the eye of the beholder. (If I describe Mary as “warm, compassionate, and agreeable”, the words mean something in the sense that they change what experiences you anticipate—if you believed my report, you would be surprised if Mary were to kick your dog and make fun of your nose job—but the things that they mean are a high-level statistical signal in behavior for which we don’t have a simple measurement device like a meterstick to appeal to if you and I don’t trust each other’s character assessments of Mary.)

Notice how the “not allowing sex and race differences in psychological traits to appear on shared maps is the Schelling point for resistance to sex- and race-based oppression” actually gives us an explanation for why one might reasonably have a sense that there are dread doors that we must not open. Undermining the “everyone is Actually Equal” Schelling point could catalyze a preference cascade—a slide down the slippery slope to the next Schelling point, which might be a lot worse than the status quo on the “amount of rape and genocide” metric, even if it does slightly better on “estimating heritability coefficients.”

I am not endorsing Saotome-Westlake’s psychometric opinions, as such, but I am intrigued by what this example suggests about what kinds of norms that groups can support and propagate.

See also Movement design.

Or why not read Meaningnesss, on wonder for some highbrow Insane Clown Posse?

Elite capture

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, On the Uses and Abuses of Identity Politics:

Elite capture, he explains, is a concept that emerged from the study of developing countries. It initially referred to the tendency of the upper class to gain control over foreign aid; in other words, the rich get richer. But the concept has also come to encompass the ways that elites appropriate political projects and monopolize attention.

Elite capture, Táíwò says, is “not a conspiracy” but rather “a kind of system behavior.” Systems are a major theme of the book, a theme Táíwò develops by drawing on the philosophy of games. Another motif is his impatience with the symbolic gestures and efforts to avoid “complicity” that have come to take precedence, in his view, over actual political outcomes.

See also his Boston Review piece, Identity Politics and Elite Capture.

Girardian mimetic violence

That’s mimetic not memetic, although there are points of contact. Girard apparently wrote about our desires being often about being something rather than having something. Alex Danco summarizes a few choice morsels:

at a deep neurological level, when we watch other people and pattern our desires off theirs, we are not so much acquiring a desire for that object so much as learning to mimic somebody, and striving to become them or become like them. Girard calls this phenomenon mimetic desire. We don’t want; we want to be.

I do not know what neurological level he is attempting to evoke. Perhaps some of that mirror neuron business. In any case, needs work, citation required.

Modern status forums like Instagram are designed explicitly to bring out this dual admiration/resentment emotion within us. Instagram’s real product isn’t photos; it’s likes. The photos and the events they depict are just the transient objects that bubble up to the surface; what really matters is the relationship between the people. But the fact that Instagram’s product is built around the objects and not the models isn’t an accident: it’s sneaky. It creates way more space and oxygen for resentment and desperation to grow beneath the surface. It’s not about the photo or what it depicts; it’s always about the other person.

Or see Byrne Hobart again:

We’re used to thinking of desire as something that emerges organically: you want something, and you try to get it. Sometimes, it’s easy; sometimes, there’s competition.

To Girard, that’s all wrong: you want something because of competition. Success is just a story you tell yourself about your desire for your rivals to fail.

Stand alone complex

Stand Alone Complex is a handy word in this domain.

A ‘Stand Alone Complex' can be compared to the copycat behavior that often occurs after incidents such as serial murders or terrorist attacks. An incident catches the public’s attention and certain types of people “get on the bandwagon”[…] It is particularly apparent when the incident appears to be the result of well-known political or religious beliefs, but it can also occur in response to intense media attention. For example, a mere fire, no matter the number of deaths, is just a garden variety tragedy. However, if the right kind of people begin to believe it was arson, caused by deliberate action, the threat increases drastically that more arsons will be committed.

What separates the ‘Stand Alone Complex’ from normal copycat behavior is that the originator of the copied action is not even a real person, but merely a rumored figure that commits said action. Even without instruction or leadership a certain type of person will spring into action to imitate the rumored action and move toward the same goal even if only subconsciously.>The result is an epidemic of copied behavior—with no originator. One could say that the Stand Alone Complex is mass hysteria-with purpose.

Directed use of this I have seen referred to as stochastic terrorism, as covered in economics of insurgence.

Hybrid social-pathogenic contagion

TBD. I think Peter Watts wrote a science fiction story about this. More contemporary, the question of what the effect of socially-transmitted beliefs about disease does to socially-transmitted disease. If the anti-vaxxers tend to know each other and meet up, what does this do for broader social immunity?

Hyperselection of transmissible beliefs

Yudkowsky’s memetic collapse post:

I’ve had the sense before that the Internet is turning our society stupider and meaner. My primary hypothesis is “The Internet is selecting harder on a larger population of ideas, and sanity falls off the selective frontier once you select hard enough”.

To review, there’s a general idea that strong (social) selection on a characteristic imperfectly correlated with some other metric of goodness can be bad for that metric, where weak (social) selection on that characteristic was good. If you press scientists a little for publishable work, they might do science that’s of greater interest to others. If you select very harshly on publication records, the academics spend all their time worrying about publishing and real science falls by the wayside. On my feed yesterday was an essay complaining about how the intense competition to get into Harvard is producing a monoculture of students who’ve lined up every single standard accomplishment and how these students don’t know anything else they want to do with their lives. Gentle, soft competition on a few accomplishments might select genuinely stronger students; hypercompetition for the appearance of strength produces weakness, or just emptiness.

A hypothesis I find plausible is that the Internet, and maybe television before it, selected much more harshly from a much wider field of memes; and also allowed tailoring content more narrowly to narrower audiences. The Internet is making it possible for ideas that are optimized to appeal hedonically-virally within a filter bubble to outcompete ideas that have been even slightly optimized for anything else. We’re looking at a collapse of reference to expertise because deferring to expertise costs a couple of hedons compared to being told that all your intuitions are perfectly right, and at the harsh selective frontier there’s no room for that. We’re looking at a collapse of interaction between bubbles because there used to be just a few newspapers serving all the bubbles; and now that the bubbles have separated there’s little incentive to show people how to be fair in their judgment of ideas for other bubbles, it’s not the most appealing Tumblr content. Print magazines in the 1950s were hardly perfect, but they could get away with sometimes presenting complicated issues as complicated, because there weren’t a hundred blogs saying otherwise and stealing their clicks. Or at least, that’s the hypothesis.

This kind of trap sounds like Moloch.

Pluralistic ignorance

A classic stylized phenomenon. See pluralistic ignorance


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  1. And in any case, scientists at their most precise and factual still uses emotion and metaphor to do communicative work. That is, I suspect, practically unavoidable, or worse, avoiding it would be inefficient.↩︎

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