Thursday, February 15, 2007

Richard Dawkins’ ideological dark energy

In his post Thank You, Richard Dawkins, Sean Carroll posits that Richard Dawkins has made the universe more hospitable for Atheists by moving the Overton window in a direction more amenable to his point of view. More problematically, he suggests that this makes up for Dawkins’ abrasiveness and divisive approach. Because Sean’s a physicist, I’ll use a cosmological metaphor to illustrate why I disagree.

Below (fig 1) is a simplified two-dimensional ideological universe, With the axes Idea X and Idea Y. The ten inhabitants of this universe are represented by different colored ellipses, plotted according to each person’s belief in ideas X and Y. The size of each ellipse shows the degree to which each person’s ideological position varies- think of it as a tolerance, or uncertainty value.

The problem with divisive, extremist positioning such as that done by Dawkins is that it accelerates his followers along the axis he promotes, but it does so while leaving the inhabitants of that universe with constant (or even decreasing) uncertainty/tolerance. Extremism is the dark energy of the ideological universe, which accelerates its outliers away from the gravitational tug of consensus.

As is shown in figure 2, extremist expansion spreads the same summed individual tolerances over a larger area, reducing the overlap. In contrast, expanding the universe by simply increasing the tolerance of the individuals who inhabit it increases both cohesion and range (figure 3).

If we think of the Overton window as the mean +/- 1 sigma of the population for any given idea, then extremism does move the window. But by decreasing the overlap, it reduces the probability that a solution in this window will fit all the data.

Fortunately, there is a counteracting force to extremist dark energy. Richard Nixon’s great silent majority is the “dark matter” of this universe. In figure 4 (below) the plotting of this large, but often un-noticed population of centrist, tolerant people gives this universe the additional mass and connectivity to remain cohesive. But sociologists have not yet told us what the necessary ratio of dark matter to dark energy is in order to prevent an ideological universe from exploding into irreconcilable pieces in the way that the physical universe is doing.

In the early stages of cosmology, researchers didn’t know the relative proportions of dark matter and energy, so many of them simply assumed that they must be fairly similar. By the time anyone got around to measuring them, it was billions of years too late to do anything about it, and the universe was already accelerating into infinity.

In ideology, as in space, the ability to act on a nearby body is inversely proportional to its distance. We can’t do anything about the extremists blasting off of the other side of the universe. But we can hope to slow the ones who fly through our ideological space. And it is vital that we do this. Because by encouraging dark energy, we risk dying an ideological heat death, frozen into diverging paradigms in a universe devoid of light.


BrianR said...

i wonder how much of the silent majority is better described as "apathetic" rather than "centrist and tolerant".

How might the idealogical space of apathetics look?

C W Magee said...

"How might the idealogical space of apathetics look?"

Who cares? It's Friday afternoon beer time!


Karen James said...

So, your problem, then, is with the Overton Window, rather than with Dawkins or Carroll per se.

Granted, you've got a compelling, artfully explained analogy here, but I think that's where it ends. Where is the evidence that this analogy models reality better (or for that matter worse) than the Overton Window?

Dr. Lemming said...

My problem is that people who try to move the Overton window by pulling on its edges are risking fragmenting society instead of moving it.