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New Normal, Old Fallacy

The correlation between being intelligent and being correct is, unfortunately, not as strong as we’d like it to be.

If smart people were as right as they are smart, knowing what to do all the time would be a lot simpler than it actually is.  But, alas.

A case-in-point is an article entitled “The New Normal,” published recently in Georgia State University Magazine, highlighting the thinking of uncontested smart person (and Smart Drug Smarts podcast alumnus) Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy and associate neuroscience faculty member at GSU.

Unfortunately, the key idea of this article is just plain wrong.

The article presages a future where society has to deal with the nasty, unintended consequences of ever-more-effective cognition-enhancing drugs.  In this hypothetical dystopia, health/safety and efficacy concerns have all been addressed; the problems presented are purely social ones.

The title – “The New Normal” – refers to the social expectation that everyone will be using these drugs, for fear of underperforming and not keeping up with the cognitively-enhanced Joneses.

Citing high-responsibility professions like surgeons and airline pilots, Vincent warns of creeping public pressure for individuals to use the best-available cognitive enhancers to maximize their performance.  “You’re performing a job that many people’s lives depend on,” she says.  “If you mess up and people die when you could have just taken this [performance-enhancing] pill, people will see that as negligence.”

Why yes, I daresay they would.

Let me step back for a moment and say that I agree with most of the premises that the article’s “doomsday scenario” of changing cultural norms is based on.

  • I agree that cognitive enhancement technologies (including, but not limited to, “smart drugs”) will continue to improve.
  • I agree that early-adopters and more competitive members of society will use these things, and change our collective expectations — first of what is “acceptable,” next of what is “normal,” and finally what is “required” (either legally, or by overwhelming social pressure).
  • I agree that we’ll release these technologies into our society without having a clear understanding of their eventual consequences.*

* Humans have a bad track record when it comes to keeping genies in bottles.  If there are any technological genies that haven’t been un-bottled, I can’t think of them.  (Of course, this could be because their inventors kept them so darned secret we just don’t know such genies have been invented — and if so, kudos to those inventors.)  But as a rule — from atomic weapons to boy bands — if we invent things, we tend to use them and only afterwards consider what we’ve wrought on ourselves.

So if I agree with almost every premise presented by Vincent, what is she wrong about, exactly?

Her thesis fails the So-What Test.

Cognitive Enhancement will become the new normal.  So what.

As these technologies move from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority and eventually to everyone else, even the kicking, screaming Laggards will be pressured along (see the Diffusion of Innovations for this fun, cocktail-party terminology).

But… so what?

Let me provide some examples of other ideas that have failed the So-What Test:

  • “If access to basic education continues to expand… people will have to be literate to effectively participate in society.”
  • “If air travel becomes commonplace… businesses may expect workers to travel for hours at a time, at extreme heights, with absolutely nothing underneath of them.”
  • “If medicine further reduces infant mortality… manufacturers of child coffins will be put out of business — or else suffer the ignominy of re-marketing their products for small household pets.”

So freaking what, in all cases.

I could come up with more examples — a lot more.  All these if-thens are 100% correct.  And all are absurd in a way that is self-evident to pretty much everyone except… philosophers.

I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth (or over-speculate about someone else’s writing), but Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

But we can’t.  

And I don’t just mean we shouldn’t, I mean we can’t.

With apologies to Nostradamus and Madame Cleo, most of our track-records for predicting the future are just plain rotten.  And that includes really smart people — even professional think-tanks full of really smart people.

Accurately predicting the future requires access to enormous data sets, solid estimates of rates-of-change, an inherently counterintuitive understanding of exponential growth, and effective models of how various simultaneously-moving metrics interact with each other.

In fact, I’m just speculating that this recipe — if it could be pulled off — could accurately predict the future.  We don’t know.  But I find it hard to imagine that any of these tent-pole prerequisites wouldn’t be necessary.

Vincent’s stance seems to be “we haven’t figured out all the ramifications of these technologies yet, so we should maintain the status quo until we do.”

It was Abraham Lincoln who said: “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”  I’ve been reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and one thing is easy for us to forget now, 150 years later, but was an enormous hurdle for Lincoln and other slavery-abolitionists:

There were many of Lincoln’s contemporaries — even those who morally opposed slavery — who thought that the Law of Unintended Consequences, when applied to a societal change as massive as the 13th Amendment (which made slaves’ wartime emancipation permanent), was just too risky.  What righteous babies might be thrown out with the slavery-colored bathwater?  Heck, what about the disaster inflicted on the federal government’s Strategic Mule Supply, if each of the freed slaves really got “40 acres and a mule”?

(Please refer back to the So-What Test, mentioned above.)

Rhetorical Bag of Dirty Tricks #47 and #48:  If you want to sound good, align your ideas with those of Abraham Lincoln.  To demonize your opposition, reference their ideas alongside Hitler’s.  I do both, although I’m leaving Hitler out of this post.

“The only constant is change.”

Trying to game out the future before it arrives, as we’ve discussed, is a fool’s errand.

And attempting to stop the future from arriving — to stop time in its tracks — is as close as history gives us to a recipe for a lost cause.  There are so many examples of losing battles fought in the name of such causes; the cultural annihilation of both the Native Americans and the samurai of Imperial Japan both come to mind.

Looking at these long-ago-settled battles from the winners’ side of history — knowing who triumphed and why, we now see the romance under the dust.  The American Indians, the samurai — both were fighting technologically superior forces in doomed, all-or-nothing conflicts.  The winners’ superior firepower, their superior numbers — both feel a lot like cheating as we look back on those conflicts now.

The “noble savages” didn’t stand a chance, but boy-oh-boy, did they have heart.

The position taken in the GSU article — against the creeping use of cognitive enhancement technologies — would try to paint baseline Homo Sapiens (circa 2015) as a noble savage race.

It’s an argument that packs emotional appeal.

You, me, and everyone we know, falls into the “us” that is under this impending, theoretical threat.  Even those of us who are using cognitive enhancers (those currently available) — we’re still a part of the “home team,” compared to those upgraded rascals from 2020, or 2030, or 2045, and whatever brain-enhancers they’re using to one-up, two-up, and eventually disenfranchise the biological “normals.”

What Part of “Progress” Don’t You Like?

I’m a sucker for historical romance.  I don’t mean boy-meets-girl kissy-kissy stuff where the girl wears a corset; I mean the broad, sweeping emotionality of individual humans struggling amidst great forces.

And the Tide of History is among the greatest of forces — less tangible but equally powerful as any natural disaster.

I watch a movie like The Last Samurai and see the doomed samurai charge, and I get misty-eyed like everyone else.  But I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

Unbeknownst to them, they were fighting against a world that cured Polio.

They were fighting against a world that explores space.

They were fighting against a world where run-of-the-mill consumer technology allows me to research samurai while listening to Icelandic music (created on synthetic instruments, and presented in Surround-Sound) as I sip African coffee and wait for a transcontinental flight that will be faster, cheaper, and safer than it used to be to travel between nearby villages.

Of course, the samurai didn’t know they were fighting against this stuff.

They just weren’t sure about this whole modernization thing, and what sort of “new normals” might emerge.

Bob Dylan was right: The times, they are a-changin’.

You won’t be forced to keep up.

Cultural tides may pull you along, but you’ll be free to swim against the current if you really want to.  There are examples of that, too.  The Amish are one.

The Amish are still here, in 2015.  So far as I know, they’re not under any particular threat.  They’re doing okay.  They decided to pull the cultural emergency-brake in 1830, or whatever, and well…

They continue to exist.  Why?  Because we live in a peaceful-enough, prosperous-enough culture that no one has decided it’s necessary to overrun, assimilate, or eradicate them and harvest their resources.  

It should be pointed out that societies like ours — this peaceful, this prosperous — are somewhat of an historical anomaly.  But the good news is:  We live in an era of unprecedented positive historical anomalies.

I recognize that those noble samurai are, however unwittingly, the bad guys.

If you want to opt out of further technological progress and rely on the goodwill of your fellow man (or, eventually, the Homo Sapiens-successors you’ll be opting out of becoming), there’s never been a safer time to do so.  We can’t predict the future, but the trend-lines do seem promising.

But for me, personally…

I don’t want to rely on the goodness of my fellow man.

That sort of reliance is something you do in a pinch, not as a general strategy.

Do you think the Amish would have made it through the Cold War without the more technologically-minded Americans picking up their cultural slack?  No sir, not at all.  Heck, they’d have been steamrolled in the Spanish-American War, generations earlier.

I didn’t start off this post intending to disparage the Amish, but dammit, now I will.  The fact is, they’re not going to read this anyway.

There is a word for people who have every opportunity to be effective, but choose not to be, and instead rely on others to be effective on their behalf.

That word is Freeloaders.

The Amish, I put it to you, are freeloaders.

GSU’s New Normal article posits a future where effective, cheap, safe, non-prescription “smart drugs” have become commonplace.

In that future, when it arrives, people who have the opportunity to use these drugs to improve themselves, and choose not to, will also be freeloaders.

I won’t be one of them.

4 comments

  1. Elliott English says:

    Thanks for all your work and information. I continue to enjoy the podcast and have so almost since it started. In response to your lead in, I wanted to point out a related but more formal construct from some evolutionary minded cognitive scientists around backing up the idea that intelligence does not correlate with truthiness: http://edge.org/conversation/the-argumentative-theory. I find it compelling that in science, academia, and the blogosphere etc. we see the production of arguments which are equivalent to sexual signaling. In other words, argumentation is art, cognitive flourishes (of various qualities) often disguised as science and real science is hard to pin down.

    To your arguments for cognitive enhancement, I generally agree though they could have also taken many other paths (also supportive) 1. In general optimal long term cognition is equivalent to optimal health when it is not i.e taking amphetamines for tests or required period of exertion by a soldier, surgeon, or even scientists…it could really be seen as a sacrifice depending on how it turns for those individual’s health. I would like us all to keep thinking about the subtleties of “progress” and whether it exists to our individual benefit or not…like most tech enthusiasts I would like to believe it does, but I’m not convinced that it is necessarily so. Evolution does not have feelings, and who knows what forms of life might make most or all humans genetic dead ends. That said, it seems most ethical to cheat (mother nature) as much as cognitively-enhanced-superhumanly possible or else we are just arguing for a sort of normal extinction of our own species. This is all beside the practical impossibility of enforcement that you emphasize. Cheers, Elliott

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      That’s a really interesting point — the “attempt to cognitively optimize as a tech-attempt at divergent evolution, to avoid (eventual) human extinction.” Kudos. Thanks for the comment; this definitely spurs even more ideas. 😉

  2. Ben says:

    Jesse, this was a compelling read.

    But I’d argue that you’re defeating a strawman argument here.

    Consider an extreme, sci-fi case where implantable computers confer a marked cognitive advantage. It would be concerning if suddenly these became the “new normal” in the corporate/academic world. Obviously, this example is a little hokey – but I’m sure you know what I’m getting at. The cognitive benefits of nootropics may be too modest for us to care now – but what about down the line?

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi Ben — I don’t find the extreme example concerning at all, and in fact, I think that’s what we should be rooting for. The more smart people in society, the more we all benefit. Sure, there may be the occasional evil genius — but I think that they’re vastly outnumbered by friendly geniuses — except for maybe in cartoons and James Bond films.

      Even if some epicly smart person “out-competes” you for a job or a mate or whatever, there may still be spillover benefits — and there almost certainly will be, in the aggregate. Steve Jobs arguably out-competed the rest of humanity during his tenure on Earth, and look at the benefits we all derive from his legacy.

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