A decade since the “sane person”: scientific knowledge or populism? | Sciences

A decade since the “sane person”: scientific knowledge or populism?  |  Sciences

It has been ten years since an obscure history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – Yuval Noah Harari – became one of the world’s most influential intellectuals. It was the reason Sapiens: A Brief History of Humanity, a book he published in 2011, which later exploded onto the international market a few years later. Now available in 65 languages ​​- and 464 pages in English – it has spent 96 consecutive weeks in New York times’ Bestseller list. It has become one of Bill Gates’ 10 favorite books, and 45 million copies have been sold to date.

Harare is an extraordinary publishing phenomenon – there’s no doubt about that. but The wise one It is often considered a popular science book, because it deals with some of the central questions of human evolution, such as the evolution of language and our cognitive abilities. And scholars dealing with these same questions are not very comfortable with Harari’s work.

While the international press was full of praise for him The wise oneAnthropologists such as Christopher Hallpike, of McMaster University in Canada, found that the book did not make a “serious contribution to knowledge.”

“Whenever his facts are broadly true, they are not new, and whenever he tries to strike out on his own, he often gets it wrong, sometimes seriously,” the anthropologist wrote in a scathing review. Other analysts pointed out that the text is based on statements that lack empirical evidence, while arbitrary theories and sensational exaggerations abound.

What explains this profound discrepancy between the public reception of The wise one And its harsh academic critics? Well, one can imagine that a man who sells 45 million copies in 65 languages ​​is doomed to receive more than just praise from other experts, who usually struggle to find readers. When a computer scientist sees that Mark Zuckerberg is calling not him, but Harari, to consult on the effects of technology on humanity, he is understandably frightened, just as an epidemiologist would likely be, when he discovers that UNESCO asked Harari about the effects of technology on humanity. Covid on international scientific cooperation. For a long time now, Harari has been no simple essayist: he has become the Oracle of Delphi.

Central thesis of The wise one is that our species – A wise man – It has come to dominate the world thanks to its ability to cooperate in large numbers. This, in turn, is due to our amazing ability to believe in intangible things, such as gods, nations, the value of money, and human rights. According to this idea, our mastery of the world is due to our talent for imagination, for constructing (and believing) stories about things that only exist in our imagination. It is undoubtedly a simple and easy idea to buy. But the question is whether this idea is also one of those stories about things that don’t exist.

“We were seduced by Harari by the power not of his fact or research, but the power of his storytelling,” wrote neuroscientist Darshana Narayanan of Princeton University, who published a highly critical article. The wise one in Current affairs last year. This expert sees Harari as a “scientific populist” – a gifted storyteller who weaves “gifted narrators who weave exciting yarns around scientific ‘facts’ in simple, emotionally compelling language.” Harari’s account of the world is not hampered by nuance and doubts: he masquerades with a “false air of authority.” Like any populist, the author is a purveyor of misinformation who invents non-existent crises to be resolved victoriously immediately.

Yuval Noah Harari, in Beverly Hills, in September 2018.© Emily Pearl/The New York Times

Harari is a technological pessimist, if not a scientific catastrophist. His analysis of the Scientific Revolution is frustrating for someone – like me – who has devoted half his life to trying to explain to the public the importance of science as a force for social progress. The historian sees science as a vector of European imperialism and the cultural homogenization of the modern world: he seems convinced that technology will end our species through genetic engineering and artificial life. He also believes that the human race will likely disappear within 100 years and that the planet will be inherited by artificial intelligence and cyborgs, hybrids of humans and machines.

In the new commemorative edition, the author devotes his best artillery to attacking ChatGPT – the trendy (or nearly obsolete) AI-powered chatbox. In fact, ChatGPT was asked to write an introduction to the new edition of the book. The poor machine has written a piece that actually sounds vaguely like Harari:

“In the past, we could have power in the imaginary system of nation-states and the capitalist market. Thanks to this system, we have been able to achieve unprecedented prosperity and well-being. However, the same system is trying to destroy us.”

However, Harari was not very happy. “Right now, I feel confident that ChatGPT won’t take my job… at least not in the next few years,” he says. But he also admits to being fascinated by the machine: “I had to read the script carefully for a minute or two (before I concluded) that I hadn’t written that.”

Harari’s best-selling book barely deals with artificial intelligence. This wouldn’t have mattered 12 years ago, which is a reminder of how quickly these technologies have advanced in recent times. The emergence of deep learning and large language models (LLMs) has been a huge catalyst for the field, and ChatGPT is only the most well-known result. Harari believes that these events are “the end of our history as we know it.” In fact, he has declared the end of civilization in several recent opinion pieces.

The author warns us that “artificial intelligence and genetic engineering can easily be put to serve the goals of tyrants.” Sure they can, but the same can be said about almost anything. The fact that artificial intelligence is being used to dramatically accelerate knowledge of human biology, or that genetic engineering is an essential tool in medicine, does not seem to interest the author much. Since these facts do not fit his story, he excludes them.

However, Harari insists on his central message: that A wise man It is best understood as a story-telling animal. So, let’s take a look at some of the stories Harari tells. For example, the author assures us that all apes have language, in an attempt to downplay the importance of language in the process of human evolution, as he wishes to show us that the real key is our ability to invent narratives. But scientists who have investigated how animals communicate — Narayanan among them — don’t think apes really have language: that is, a symbolic, generative, hierarchical system based on rules, such as syntax. Human language is not just a means of communication like that we see in animals – it is a reshaping process that affects all our cognitive processes, offering us “a new dimension of reality,” in the words of the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer. We don’t know whether narrative ability is unique to humans, but language – in this sense – certainly seems to be. That Harari dismisses this as an inconvenient drag on his story is intolerable.

“In the fight against disasters such as AIDS or Ebola, the balance is increasingly tipped in favor of humanity,” the historian wrote in 2017. “Therefore, major pandemics are likely to continue to pose a threat to humanity only in the future.” If humanity itself generated them, to serve a ruthless ideology. This was written two years before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, which has claimed more than 15 million lives worldwide. Virologists have been warning for decades about another pandemic, and the questions were only about when it would happen and what specific virus might cause it. But Harari chose to subscribe to some kind of cheap conspiracy theory. However, once Covid hit, all the major media outlets – from the BBC to… India Today – Contact Harari to consult with him about the best way to deal with the epidemic and its future consequences.

Harari’s ideas about artificial intelligence and the end of civilization as we know it align with those of big tech tycoons like Elon Musk, who claim to be concerned about the possibility of machines achieving some form of consciousness and control. These future speculations get a lot of airtime, but they distract the public from the damage algorithms are already doing in a world still governed by humans. A wise man. Companies are widely using artificial intelligence systems to hire, fire, and monitor employees. The algorithms they use feed on the texts people write, thus absorbing the same cognitive biases that prevent humans from thinking clearly and maintaining a certain sense of fairness. These machines have no consciousness and do not threaten civilization, but they exacerbate discrimination based on race, gender, and other factors. This is the issue we need to address, and the rest of the concerns are currently science fiction.

Even the most critical scholars of Harari recognize his great ability to tell stories. “We seduce Harari with his stories,” admits neuroscientist Narayanan, “but a closer look at his record shows that he sacrifices science for sensationalism, frequently makes serious errors of fact and portrays what should be speculative as certain.” This statement embodies the impression that The wise one This has been stated by many scholars, including the author of this article. I should disclose that I also know scholars who are fans of the book, as well as many others who have never read it.

None of this suggests that there is some sort of scientific police dedicated to verifying each author’s claims. Harari and his book constitute a special case, given the enormous reach and influence they enjoy not only among the general public, but also among the senior figures who govern our technological destinies. Stimulating public debate is laudable and necessary, but monopolizing it is a different matter entirely. The wise one It has the prestige of scientific work, but it is not scientific work. Understandably, this has upset scientists. Because in science there is no Harari and there are no authorities. There are only informed arguments.

The wise one It is a dated book. It shines more in its areas of expertise – the last 5,000 years – than in its forays into the mists of time. Harari believes that humanity – what makes us truly human – is the product of the “cognitive revolution” that occurred 70,000 years ago in the Middle East. This hypothesis is old and clumsy, and had already been discarded and buried when the book was written, because half of humanity would be excluded from this “cognitive revolution.” Harari ignores—or simply ignores—the deep evolutionary roots of our brain (and the rest of the body). The development of the human mind did not begin 70 thousand years ago, but rather 500 million years ago, on the coasts of the Cambrian continents. Talking about evolution without having any idea about biology is bold, and usually leads to confusion among the public.

Must read The wise one If you haven’t already. It’s a very interesting book just make sure to remember that it’s not a scholarly work, but a story.

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