Saturday Links 29-Sep-2018 Flashbulb memories and Kavanaugh, China-US trade, Facebook and mob violence, climate change

1. Flashbulb memories and Kavanaugh. The best way to make your tribe hate someone is to attack their motives. It’s not enough to show the evildoer is mistaken, or disagrees, or has different values. No. The evildoer must desire evil. Then we can hate with relish. The flip side of this point is claims of evil motives set off my alarm bells. With the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh this week, there’s plenty of motive questioning going around. Ford had to open her testimony saying she didn’t have partisan motives. And of course Brett Kavanaugh motives are questioned as well.

I don’t want to argue for or against Ford or Kavanaugh here. But I do want to argue it’s plausible both Ford and Kavanaugh are telling the truth about the sexual assault, as far as they remember it. How? Memory researchers know memory gets overwritten and laid down again each time you recall an event. So with each recollection, memories shift. Traumatic memories are sometimes called “flashbulb memories”, and our confidence in them remains high despite this process. For example regarding 9/11:

Despite their memory confidence, when the details of their memories were compared to the initial survey taken within 10 days of 9/11, there were significant inconsistencies. A year after the event, only about 2/3 of what people remembered was accurate. This accuracy did not dip much lower after that, and by 10 years after 9/11, people were still about 60% accurate.

And in terms of your memory being self serving:

Our findings suggest that when people’s actions fall short of their own personal standards, they may misremember the extent of their selfishness, thereby warding off negative emotions and threats to their moral self-image.

[Update Sep 30: via James Thompson, I learned a bit more about traumatic memory: “So to conclude, yes memory is faulty, but certain details of emotional memories are predictably faulty, others more accurate. If the attacker in these cases is known, that detail is both rehearsed & less likely to be subject to interference =among the most accurate.” This is of course support for Ford being more accurate than Kavanaugh. And  time may provide more conclusive evidence. Given this, I want to make more clear what my central point is. I’m not arguing Ford and Kavanaugh are the same, or that Kavanaugh in particular is completely truthful. My central point is not about them, but about our fellow citizens. My central point is we should not jump to the conclusion our fellow citizens who disagree about Ford/Kavanaugh do so in bad faith with bad motives.]

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Peter Turchin, but it seems we’re on a path to where our current conflicts will escalate until we get domestic political violence. So I read those I disagree with, not to change my mind, but to understand my fellow citizens. It’s an attempt to avoid questioning motives. If you want to give it a try, first assume neither Ford nor Kavanaugh are lying about their memory. Then if liberal, try reading Rod Dreher. Or if conservative, read The Unbearable Dishonesty of Brett Kavanaugh. You’ll probably hate hate hate the experience. But it may be a small step towards binding our countries wounds.

2. New Era of US-China relations. Despite the headlines for Ford/Kavanaugh, I think the biggest strategic news this week is the continuing breakdown of US-China relations. Here’s Bill Bishop:

Regular readers know that I have been saying that Xi and his team had made a fundamental shift in their views of the trade war by August, from thinking it was a manageable dispute to now believing it is part of a broader American plan to keep China down.

Now that Xi and the CCP system have decided that America’s real goal in the trade war is to “thwart China’s rise” we are starting to see a rollout of official reactions, with self-reliance as a key theme. We should expect the PRC under Xi to use all means at its disposal as it pursues that goal, however impossible it may be in today’s global economy.

Even in the unlikely event there is a U.S.-China trade deal over the next few months, the Chinese side will only view that as a useful delaying action while they work increasingly hard to wean themselves from as much dependence and reliance on the U.S. as possible.

The bottom line: The fundamental assumptions around the U.S.-China relationship look to have been irreparably shattered.

Related, here’s an interesting piece on how the trade war is impacting China’s Skynet mass surveillance system (yes, they really do call it that).

3. Facebook, WhatsApp and mob violence. In July the New York Times wrote about How WhatsApp Leads Mobs to Murder in India. Then this week, John Oliver had a segment on Facebook and mob violence as well, which was pretty good as well as funny.

That said, I believe the correct take here is from Alexis Madrigal, who points out:

This year has been presented as an epidemic of violence, aided and abetted, even caused, by WhatsApp. The narrative slotted neatly into the broader discussion of Big Tech’s failuresthe corrosiveness of social media, and the crises of misinformation across the world. After all, WhatsApp usage has exploded in India over the past few years, across city and country, rich and poor. Two hundred million Indians now use WhatsApp. Communal violence has been on the rise, going from 751 incidents resulting in 97 deaths in 2015 to 822 incidents and 111 deaths in 2017. Surely one had something to do with the other, given all the reports of violence, not to mention troubles with vaccination misinformation and all manner of hoaxes.

But that’s where the grand narrative starts to break down. Extend the time horizon back further and the number of incidents was larger in 2013, 2009, and 2008, when communal violence peaked in India in the past decade. There’s no evidence that higher levels of communication-technology penetration has led to higher levels of communal violence.


WhatsApp may be a common factor in the reports of violence, but perhaps not in the way that people have intimated. As more people get smartphones and the ability to record video, preexisting nasty behaviors now generate media that circulates. As with police brutality in the U.S., there may be more reports of violence in the media not because there is more violence, but because there is more video of that violence.

4. Global warming will be expensive, and humanity’s irrational reaction may make it even more so. This is by Tyler Cowen. The careful reader will note there is a surface understanding of Cowen’s piece, which is climate change is really bad, and will be made worse because we’ll react badly to it. There’s also a more Straussian take, in which one might question whether the overreaction is nearly as bad as the problem itself. How closely you read is up to you. link

And that’s all for this week. Thank you for your time!

Categorized as Link post

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.


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