Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Attention-seeking fearmongering

Proponents of memetics have often used it to criticise positions they disagree with as being just a bunch of virulent memes. Dawkins did this in 1976 - criticizing religion - and many other proponents of memetics have followed suit. I don't spend much time criticizing religion. In my opinion, most theistic religions have not been scientifically credible for centuries - and going after their proponents seems like shooting fish in a barrel to me. However I am interested in illuminating modern secular scientific issues using memetics.

Among my targets are proponents of the apocalypse. Two modern forms seem especially prominent. One is the idea that some combination of global warming, pollution, overpopulation and resource depletion will lead to environmental catastrophe. The other is the idea that machine intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics is likely to lead to human extinction.

In a few cases the same individuals engage in fearmongering on multiple topics. For example, Stephen Hawking has warned about the dangers of climate change, runaway artifical intelligence and alien invasions. On climate he has said:

We are close to the tipping point where global warming becomes irreversible [...] Trump's action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.

On machine intelligence he has advised that:

The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.

He has also cautioned on the topic of alien contact arguing that aliens:

will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.

Another celebrity serial fearmongerer is Elon Musk. He's expressed similar concerns about the climate change and runaway machine intelligence.

I identify these types of sentiment as consisting largely of "attention-seeking fearmongering". This typically consists of associating yourself with a massive future catastrophe. Warnings may be given and sometimes advice about catastrophe avoidance is offered. As catastrophe alerts propagate you are promoted too - via a kind of memetic hitchhiking.

Some of the early proponents of this type of self-promotional technique applied to machine intelligence were Kevin Warwick and Hugo De Garis. Kevin Warwick wrote a 1997 book about how machines were going to take over the world, titled "March of the Machines: Why the New Race of Robots Will Rule the World". De Garis later wrote the book The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent Machines. However, neither author was very competent at fearmongering. Their efforts were pioneering but relatively ineffectual. These days, fearmongering is big business - with trillions of dollars being spent on global warming avoidance as a result. Many modern oranizations specialize in fearmongering.

I identify fearmongering as being a morally-dubious marketing technique. Part of the problem is that humans are naturally paranoid - due to the "sabre-tooth tiger at the watering hole" phenomenon. Our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment. These days, our environment is typically much, much safer. However we are still wired up as though the sabre-tooth tigers are still around. We are naturally paranoid. Fearmongering exploits human paranoia - typically for personal gain. It seems like a low form of manipulation to me.

Fearmongering is typically used as a type of negaative advertising. Negaative advertising is often seen in American political campaigns. There's also a long history of fearmongering in IT. There, the technique is often known as spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - or F.U.D. for short.

There's a children's story about the perils of "attention-seeking fearmongering": the boy who cried wolf. There, the moral of the story is that false warnings can damage your reputation. My message here is a bit different. I am not interested in advising the fearmongers to stop using their techniques. Rather I want to help everyone else to do a better job of ignoring them. One part of this is simply understanding what is going on. An interesting resource on this topic is Dan Gardner's Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear. The book is also known as "The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't-and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger". For my part, I would like to contribute the terminology in the title of this post: "attention-seeking fearmongering". Naming things can make it easier for people to think about them.

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