The cult of ignorance; textual skulduggery; virtual fashion models: Newsletter 10 April 2024

Newsletter 39: Ignorance is a curse and a cult, Google and Meta rationalize AI ripoffs, the reality behind “birds aren’t real,” plus three people to follow and three books to read.

Can we please stop idolizing ignorance?

Twenty years ago, the Boston Red Sox did something that seemed impossible: after a supposedly cursed championship drought of 86 years characterized by heartache and many improbable defeats, they came back from a three games to zero deficit against the hated Yankees, swept the Cardinals, and claimed the 2004 World Series Championship.

Much has been written about the heroism of Red Sox figures like slugger David Ortiz, pitchers Curt Schilling and the sadly departed Tim Wakefield, base-stealer Dave Roberts, manager Terry Francona, and mastermind Theo Epstein. But to commemorate the anniversary, the Boston Globe’s Stan Grossfeld decided to lionize the real heroes: superstitious fans who imagined that their rituals were the real reason for the victory.

Die-hard fan Mark Kaufman decided the team could only win if he watched the games alone with a Redhook beer — because it kept blowing opportunities because he watched with friends.

Brendan Carty proposed to his girlfriend when the Red Sox were down 3-0, and believes their love changed the team’s luck. “Sure, I’ll take credit for it,” he said. “Why not? We all do.”

Jessica Mates, a rabbi, prayed for victory together with Josh Josephson, a Bar Mitvah boy. Now she says, “Miracle of miracles, the Red Sox won the World Series soon afterwards. We always take credit for that.” (Did God find her prayers more worthy than those of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who prayed for the Yankees and Cardinals?)

According to a 2023 Marriott Bonvoy survey of sports fans conducted by Wakefield research (presumably no relation to Tim Wakefield), 63% of sports fans with game day rituals think their team will lose if they don’t complete their rituals.

These people are idiots.

As Isaac Asimov once wrote, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ “

There is no mechanism by which fan rituals and prayer could affect sports results.

The movements of stars and planets and the moment of your birth do not influence events on earth. Even so, 34% of Americans believe in astrology.

Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine do not cure COVID. That’s based on extremely thorough medical research. Which drugs you believe will work should not depend on your politics.

The earth is not flat. GPS satellites orbit it and tell you your exact latitude and longitude, which would be impossible if it were flat. Airplanes depend on it fly to the right place, and they nearly always get where they’re going, weather permitting. Still, 10% of Americans believe it is.

These things make me sad. To be clear, I have no problem with religious faith. But random chance, medical research, astronomy, and physics are real. My problem is not with religious faith, but with the denial of facts.

Magical thinking in the 21st century is a tragedy. We have the ability to create supercomputers, design self-driving cars, cure many forms of cancer (I’m a survivor!), predict the path of hurricanes, and improve the probability of success in many forms of human endeavor. We live longer. We have instant access to all the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hand. We have news organizations checking and debunking prominent figures’ public statements. This should be a moment for the triumph of logic, science, probability, and engineering, not fairy-tale crap.

Teach science. Teach critical thinking. Help children — and adults — understand how to vet the claims they read and identify truth and conspiracies.

Where you sit won’t help your team win. People have landed on the moon. Medically tested drugs work.

The cult of ignorance is a horrifying development. I’m a tolerant person, but as of today I vow to stop tolerating willful ignorance. How about you?

News for writers and other who think

According to the New York Times (gift link), AI Large Language Models need trillions of words of data. When tech companies Meta and Google ran out of legally available text, they just changed their policies to find text that they would previously have ruled inappropriate or illegal to ingest.

Kobo released a color e-ink reader. That’s likely a bit easier on the eyes than your iPad.

As reported by the BBC, fashion model named Alexsandrah has licensed an AI-powered digital version of herself, so she can model clothes without having to put them on. This might be good for advertising, but what people really want to know is, how will that dress or that suit look on me? That’s the next frontier for AI imaging.

I written about AI-generated garbage books. But now Google Books is indexing them, and they may show up in search results. Gresham’s law states that bad money will drive out good. Is that true for bullshit content as well?

In Slate, the “Birds Aren’t Real” guy tries to turn his self-satire into a movement to do . . . well, it’s not quite clear what, but there’s a profit motive.

Three people to follow

Alison Schwartz, COO of Gotham Ghostwriters, operating at the confluence of thought leadership and authorship (and the organizing force behind the recent “Gathering of the Ghosts”).

Stephen Wolfram, founder of Wolfram Research, the premiere computing and calculation tool for scientists.

Tom Fishburne, creator of Marketoonist, the cartoon that makes marketers laugh at themselves — and, one hopes, realize how absurdly they’re behaving.

Three books to read

Present Yourself: Proven Strategies for Authentic and Impactful Public Speaking by Danielle Barnes, Christina Wodtke, and other authors (Women Talk Design, 2024). Insights on public speaking from women in the spotlight.

AI Needs You: How We Can Change AI’s Future and Save Our Own by Verity Harding (Princeton University Press, 2024). A humanist manifesto for the age of AI.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky (Free Press, 2005). The classic guide to the gibberish that passes for corporate writing.

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  1. OK, sure, those people are ignoramuses, but MY unlucky socks DEFINITELY doomed the Golden State Warriors so they broke their national championship streak a couple of times between 2015 and 2022, and conversely, my lucky socks won the Philadelphia Eagles a Super Bowl in 2018. Science! /s/

  2. You wrote, “The cult of ignorance is a horrifying development. I’m a tolerant person, but as of today I vow to stop tolerating willful ignorance. How about you?”.

    Yup, I’m in, Josh. Where do I sign? Please suggest some concrete ways in which an ordinary Joe like me can act on my good intentions? We’re not all as gifted as you to be able to figure out how to stop tolerating willful ignorance. Thanks in advance.


    1. Tom: when someone you know expresses a point of view based on ignorance or superstition, challenge them. “What makes you feel that way? What’s your source? Could you be wrong?”

  3. 10% of Americans do not believe the earth is flat. One study might say so, but quick googling reveals lots of studies, and most suggest it’s in the neighborhood of 1% of Americans who believe that. That anyone believes that is still sad, but it’s still a much less disturbing state of astonishing ignorance than 10% implies.

    You’re usually better about vetting the authority you rely upon when discussing facts than you did today. Oh, well, I guess Jove can nod.