Sunday, 1 April 2018

Follycon Live Blog 3: The New Wave and other Cognitive Biases

Was up early again, and after breakfast had another 5k run and weight session in the hotel gym. This has been an important safety valve: stuffy hotel rooms and crowded urban spaces can sometimes feel rather claustrophobic after a day or two. I don’t believe that human beings are built to live in shoeboxes.

Sunday morning was fairly laid back. Kim Stanley Robinson was giving a book signing and he very kindly allowed me to take a selfie in adddition to signing a copy of his novel New York 2140.

Later on in the afternoon I also attended Nnedi Okorafor’s signing session, although that was a little embarrassing as I hadn’t read any of her works. (I’d got hold of Binti just before the conference started but had been too busy with my Ursula Le Guinathon to actually read it).  She very gracefully pointed me in the direction of further works she thought I might like.

After lunch, I attended a lecture entitled ‘Vulcans are from Vulcan, Humans are from Earth: Understanding Climate Science and Why Some People Reject it,’ given by Doctor Kevin Cowtan. Dr. Cowtan’s a physicist who started using simple physical models to make sense of climate change data, which he made public on a website. This meant that he was exposed to climate change deniers, which made him wonder why some people persist in rejecting the evidence.

His explanation was mainly psychological, invoking cognitive and worldview biases that everyone shares.

He suggested ways of distinguishing reasonable scepticism from various forms of denial, citing Boaz Miller’s work on knowledge-based consensus. Boaz Miller said that consensus wasn’t enough to show shared knowledge in a research community, because common views can arise for other reasons, such as vested interests.

In a 2013 paper, Miller suggested that you can distinguish genuine knowledge from agreement by three factors: social calibration, apparent consilience of evidence and social diversity. Social calibration means basically that a claim has been confirmed under rigorous conditions multiple times. Consilience of evidence means that a claim is coherent with a wider body of reliable knowledge. Finally, social diversity means that the knowledge is shared across a wide number of independent bodies across society.

Dr. Cowtan finished by suggesting that while we can’t really escape our cognitive biases, that a true sceptic could often make judgments about scientific controversies using Boaz Miller’s criteria.

 I found this approach interesting, and Boaz Miller’s argument reminded me a lot of John Ziman’s thoughts on the difference between reliable and unreliable knowledge, which I’ve discussed before in the context of controversial areas of science like SETI. As there is currently no consensus over whether we share the galaxy with even one ET intelligence, this would constitute unreliable knowledge. Climate change is different because it’s been checked multiple times by independent bodies who’ve pretty much uniformally come to the same conclusion, so would constitute reliable knowledge.

This is all very well, but in my view you also have to take into account things like economic interests, misinformation campaigns and propaganda. Republican voters tend to doubt climate change not because of some brain bias but because the subject was deliberately politicised by powerful lobbies and interest groups: these independent factors can in my view explain some of the results of cognitive bias experiments better than limitations inherent to our minds. The question is not whether these biases exist but why certain subjects are likely to trigger them, and the explanations tend to be political and social as opposed to neurological.

The evening began with a trialogue  between John Clute, Stan and Christopher Priest on New Wave science fiction. The ‘New Wave’ describes a period roughly between 1965–1975 that began in England when New Worlds magazine came under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. It included writers like Priest but also J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and others.

The New Wave writers were tired of ‘chrome plated spaceship’ futures and wanted instead to concentrate on sex, drugs, ecological decay and the subconscious. They also wanted to raise the literary standards of SF. The consensus seemed to be that we’re still to an extent living in the aftermath of the New Wave.

Sunday closed with a number of conversations that I found personally very helpful. This conference has been great, but I’d been wondering how to maintain the writing enthusiasm once I return to the allegedly ‘real world.’ It’s good to have friends to run thoughts past,and I think I’ve got a strategy for the next few months at least.

It’s also useful talking to established authors in terms of a reality check. I spoke to one gentleman who had recently got a book contract and experienced anxieties about the increased demands that this had brought. I also got the chance to talk further to Stan, who was clear that very few authors were able to support themselves entirely on their writing and that this was a matter of luck as much as talent or drive.

I would like success as a writer, but not at the expense of things like imagination and fun. I get the sense that sometimes success can make people forget those things and focus on productivity, sales and career building at the expense of having a lark and exploring inner worlds. This is understandable in capitalism, but it’s something to be avoided I think. What's the point of external success if you don’t have a meaningful life?

Stan also suggested that writing SF meant you were part of a conversation in a community. This seems to me to be an important motivation for plugging on with publication attempts, besides money. I’d very much like to be a part of that conversation because I think that SF is one place where new possibilities can be explored in exciting ways. New possibilities are I think things that people desperately need right now.

This seems to me an excellent reason to carry on regardless!

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