Friday, December 31, 2004

Bad thoughts 5

More fallacies.

9. Begging the question. This one caught me by surprise. It boils down to countering an argument by assuming something with which your opponent disagrees. That is, you are begging the question. Sounds simple and obvious, but it is more incisive than expected. Let's take marijuana as an example. One side says: "It should be legalised." The other side says: "No it should be banned because it is harmful to you." This begs the question by assuming what is disputed. How? Well, because it presumes there are no benefits to marijuana. And surely, to make a decision the costs vs. benefits should be considered. Clearly, for those who advocate marijuana the benefits outweigh the costs (whether in monetary terms, or adverse effects to their own health). So the side that wants to ban it should indicate why a specific cost - it being harmful to a user - is a sufficient reason to ban it. And not assume that the supposed harmful effect is a sufficient cost to outlaw marijuana. Otherwise it merely begs the question.

10. Coincidence. This made me laugh. The most colourful example is that of people who observe the incredible unlikelihood of the exact conditions existing in the universe and on earth to allow humans to exist and conclude that, therefore, God exists. Jamie Whyte demonstrates that this is no less than saying that every lottery is rigged. Look at the small probability of Bob winning the lottery, yet he did. Unless the lottery was rigged in his favour. So therefore the lottery was rigged in his favour.
The problem lies in the conceit of the individual who reckons that somehow he or she is so special that someone must have rigged the universe for our sake. Well consider even a small fluctation in the solar system's circumstances - we would not have been here, but something else would have, and that would have been just as unlikely to exist. Therefore it was rigged (as well!). And so on ad infinitum.

Clever and quite persuasive. I would like to add that life as it is known on earth appears to be pretty "special" (in a non-religious sense of the word), and rocks and other elements fairly common. I.e. I would not presume that fluctuations in the origins of the solar system (or milky way, etc) would necessarily have caused anything as complex as life as we know it on earth. But perhaps I'm merely exhibiting my lack of deep understanding of cosmology and physics. But even if life on earth is an unlikely complexity, and most fluctuations would just cause a rearrangement of the elements rather than a complexity, then the same proof would still hold as above. Only it'd be more like saying that there are only two players in the lottery - Bob, who buys one ticket, and Bobo who buys the 15 million odd other tickets and has a funny knack of winning.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Personality profile

Interesting little personality test. I could go along with most of my results really, except on the intraversion/extraversion scale - I've always thought of myself as a little more introverted. It turns out I'm slap bang in the middle. My highest score was on openness (only slightly more than conscientiousness). Apparently it means that I am curious, imaginative, and creative. Say "cheese"...

Bad thoughts 4

7. Inconsistencies. Two points to be made - firstly, since there are so many contradictory thoughts available to the thinker, it is no easy job to construe an argument without any implicit inconsistenies. Having said that, many statements contain obvious inconsistencies that can be spotted with just a little thought. Good example: arguing that the government should both (a) cut taxes and (b) spend more. Since the democratic government's primary income will usually be taxes, this is an inconsistent statement. Jamie Whyte mentions several strains of inconsistencies, including implied generalisations, spurious claims that lack scientific evidence, and so-called inherent contradictions. I won't go into more detail, but a similar principle is at work in each case.

8. Equivocations. This is a beautiful exposure, and quite valuable. In chapter 6 he showed a syllogism false due to equivocation of the concept "entitlement to an opinion". In chapter 8 he expands and gives several more examples. The following sentence really says it well: "The
equivocator tries to replace hard intellectual graft with semantic sleight of hand". Semantic sleight of hand - I like that. So tempting always ... Anyway back to examples. Apparently in 1997 the new Labour government made public the surprising fact that 35% of British children were living in poverty. Since the poorest are the unemployed, and unemployed British citizens receive free medical care, free education, and free housing, even some additional cash for food and such, this is unlikely. So it turns out the new Labour party had changed the meaning of "poverty" - they actually meant "those earning less than 60% of the national median household income". Suddenly things became clearer. And if it's a matter of statistics, then the percentage of British children in poverty can be reduced by ... reducing the average income of the rich! Or almost any other economic group for that matter. Clever. And an example of equivocation.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Bad thoughts 3

My cynicism shone through yesterday. Today Jamie Whyte mentions two flipsides I've been hoping for commentary on. He is clearly familiar with numerous verbal strategies to foil truth-finding attempts.

5. Motives. So true. Let a politician advocate a policy and before you know it the media has speculated on every possible motive he or his party might have for supporting it. Nevermind the benefits society might receive if it is implemented. He points out that this - the motive fallacy - is rife. So widespread that we let it pass by without another thought. His tip for spotting it in conversation - when someone uses the word "just": "You're just saying that" "He's just trying to win over voters on the left".

6. The right to your opinion. The best part in this chapter is a beautifully concise syllogism that summarises the erroneous logic, based on selective meaning of a concept ("entitlement"):

If someone is entitled to an opinion then his opinion is well-supported by evidence (this is the epistemological definition of being entitled to an opinion).
I am entitled to my opinion (in the democratic definition of being entitled to an opinion).
Therefore my opinion is well-supported by evidence.

His issue is with people who are requested to provide evidence for their viewpoint and then, upon being unable to do so, assert that they are "entitled to their opinion". At best it ends the argument inconclusively - but certainly nothing has been proved. The above syllogism, based on the semantic slide of a central concept, shows this quite well.

So finally - and this is what I'd been waiting for - Whyte points out that insisting on evidence after such a retort ("i am entitled to my opinion!") will be regarded as rude. And herein lies the rub - so I'm glad he brought it up - in many cases people will refrain from taking an unpopular view in public, even if it is true or valuable. Sad but true. Usually because of fear of punishment by the majority.

Based on that then, if I were to place a condition on any of his implications it would be the implication that one is somehow entitled to try and change someone else's opinion (even if it is incorrect). Sure. But respectfully, because occasionally they gain nothing by changing their opinion, but they may lose something in their relations with other people (losing face for instance) if they change their opinion. Whereas this may sound like timidity, there is something to be said for being agreeable.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Bad thoughts 2

Jamie Whyte continues to guide our tour of bad thinking.

3. Keep quiet. The third chapter focuses on strategies to make the other party in an argument shut up, without actually refuting his or her argument. The first type he reveals is when one party makes a point and the other says: "you can hardly talk" or "you couldn't have done better". On the surface this seems to contradict chapter 1's point on Authority - i.e., if someone is not an expert, the statement should be questioned at the very least. But the point here is that if one party stated a truth (whether an expert or not), trying to get him or her to shut up does not constitute a refutation. Whyte submits two more varieties of the genre - first there is the true statement T, uttered by politician X so many times to support policy P, that opposing politician Y says in the media: "Aren't we already sick of hearing X talking about T all the time?" As if the fact that it is consistently repeated is a vice, or somehow takes away its truth value. A good point. The true statement has not been refuted. The third variety is the type of statement that is associated with, say, Hitler - and thus refuted. "Oh dear, you are sounding like Hitler now!" As if Hitler knew no factually true information, nor ever uttered any. All these strategies are aimed at getting the speaker to keep quiet, not at refuting the truth of what he or she said.

4. Empty words. Several different types are exposed. Jargon that serves no purpose other than to sound technical and important get the nod. Whyte uses an example from management consultancy: "Benchmarked against best-in-class peers, intellectual capital leverage reveals significant upward potential moving forward." This turns out to mean no more than: "Companies like yours makes better use of their employees' knowledge." Don't be fooled. I've heard variations on this theme in corporate meetings. But considering that someone just paid an enormous sum to hear that little sentence, I guess there is so much more to gain by obscuring the meaning. Like, you could be hired again! Next is weasel words, because they allow the speaker to weasel out of any claims to truth. Phrases like "possible", "believed to be", "could be" - especially when used in combination. Useful when you need to speak cautiously about something - spineless when you are making assertions based on evidence, science, or research statistics. Hooray words are also discussed. Let a politician state his or her commitment to justice or peace, with a little charisma and a few nice anecdotes - who would disagree? Aye, who does not want peace or justice? But leave the details for later - i.e., after the election ... And so on. Hooray words are those that everyone applauds - but are so abstract that by themselves they are meaningless, all things to all people. Whyte leaves the last word for inverted commas. Or rather their overuse. Often used to indicate when the speaker (or writer) means to imply the word is only allegedly its normal meaning ("Mr. Boddington 'proved' that there are people living on Mars"). But when used too much the writing becomes incomprehensible.

While I find these examples insightful - and they are just what I hoped to find when I bought the book - I miss the flipside. Everything is not rationally explainable (a weasel premise to start my commentary off with? ;-) Nor is the nature of politics such that bad arguments can be avoided. Interests will be protected - those of the kids in power, in particular. No, I don't condone it - but corruption happens because when people are allowed to play and know the rules - or better, can make a few new ones - they tend to maneuver around. They do what they can get away with. As a result arguments are just tools - their absolute truthfulness are seldom the issue. There's often more to be gained from framing an opponent than from uttering (only) true statements. Regretful as that may be.

But perhaps a more enlightened populace will expect higher standards from the media and their politicians. And with that thought in mind, I pour some water and say: "Cheers!"

Time to get a late dinner going.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The art of happiness

"one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors which lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those that lead to happiness. That is the way." - the Dalai Lama in The art of happiness.

This book is co-written, in a popular type of form, with a friend of the Dalai Lama's - a psyhiciatrist, Howard C. Cutler. Whereas the type of storytelling going on isn't my favourite format (pop psychology, no less) some of the Dalai Lama's thoughts have stood out in these the first 20 pages I've read.

Here's another:

"Now sometimes people confuse happiness with pleasure ... True happiness relates more to the mind and the heart. Happiness that depends mainly on physical pleasure is unstable; one day it's there, the next it may not be."

Earlier he also mentions the benefits of a calm and peaceful state of mind that has its roots in affection and compassion. Compassion is a key issue it seems - the trait that makes it possible for people to reach each other in their common humanness.

Bad thoughts 1

Jamie Whyte - Bad thoughts: a guide to clear thinking.

The ambition is admirable and carries my biased approval. I expected an exposure of the kind of bad logic evident in everyday thinking, and the daily gems circulated in the media. He plans to expose 12 such fallacies in the course of the book and I've checked out 2 - so far so good:

1. Misunderstanding the authority of Authority. Persons of authority have their domains of authority. As a child your parents had the authority to dictate your bedtime. "Why do I have to go to bed now?" "Because I say so." Up to a certain age that may or may not be a fair answer. But say you should ask them "How did the Virgin Mary conceive?" then the same answer is out of the appropriate domain. Conclusion: authority should be verified. If the authority is not an expert in the field in question - say its authority is derived from expertise in another field, such as when a Nobel Laureate scientist opines about politics, or worse is simply based on power - then maybe its response should be questioned.

2. The guises of prejudice. This chapter is quite good, but also more clearly exposes Whyte's (a) anger at fallacies and (b) oversight of the role of emotion. Surely logic isn't everything? For instance faith and unexplainable religious concepts fall into this category - and Whyte has little sympathy for them. The unity of the Christian Holy Trinity, due to the transitive law operating when saying that "all three are one", is a fallacy. Sure. OK. Point taken. But your point is? Clearly the faith hinges around these types of mysteries. But then that is his point - the intrinsically mysterious is impossible, therefore false. But what if the religious should reply: "God will reveal all in the end." Then from that point of view it is no longer a fallacy, merely a postponed revelation based on faith. But Whyte won't buy that. "Conditionally deferred by an Infinite Authority", he might say, "bah!" I guess I'm trying to say his approach does not *dis*prove anything as such. His point that nothing is intrinsically mysterious is a good one though - mystery is localised, evidence can be gained in its domain. His exposure of Pascal's Wager makes good sense - he points out that Pascal's logic operates in an either/or environment (either beleive in God, or be an atheist), whereas it does not cater for any other religious possibilities - including other religions, or hypothetical, uninvented religions.

For the record, in the Chistian paradigm I am an agnostic. Based on logic it is the only tenable position. Faithwise - well here we move into a world full of nuance and intuitive understandings. There (as opposed to logically) my position is that something larger than myself is at work. But I don't know what it is. If it's the Christian God, or if it's a God of a some other religion well who's to say that I can't accept that? If it's not well, that may be OK too. Maybe it's a Collective Unconscious. I think my point is that I don't approach it from the meta-side. What I do know is that something's going on, and it's just a little mysterious, which reminds me: Mr. Whyte won't like it.

But more of that another time 'cause that's a discussion all its own.

Christmas et al

Great Christmas. 7 of us, Christmas Eve in a Turkish restaurant. Christmas day, a 2.2 kg leg of lamb between us, and a neverending string of Melba biscuits, smoked salmon, Camembert and President cheese, Toblerone, ice cream, Stella (that's affectionately Stella Artois), Bell's, sparkling water, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, crisps - gosh! Got onto C's bathroom scale yesterday morning, it said 64. Last night it said 66. In a single day! Picked up 5 kilo's since coming to the UK, no longer thin as a rake but thin as a thick rake. Slept over two days because the massive machine that is London dwindles to a halt on Christmas, melting into chilly air to leave the backdrop. No public transport, no Tesco or Asda, unbelievable.

Watched Barbarian Invasions last night, it won Oscar for best foreign film. Well it was quite good, it touches the type of relevant themes that would have pleased those who did the voting: the barbarians superficially refer to America's/Canada's enemies but I suspect a larger influx of things foreign to the typical Western mind. I liked the intellectual tenor towards the end. Ideas in the "Western Canon" are taken stock of - and Remy's death and dying is like a certain type of Western tradition going the way of all living things. It is done with just the right touch - light, moving, friendship. The image of the tree in the circle of (old) trees creaking inwards - the dying friend, sheltered by friends. Perfect timing, brilliant image. Then the sky.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


"His youngest brother was retarded, a Mongoloid child with big ears, sticky affections, and a careless gravity so powerful the rest of the family fell into orbit around him"

"Sylvia and Daniel married ... [Jocelyn] brought a date, one in a series of boyfriends and lasting no longer than the others, but immortalised in the wedding pictures"

- The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler

I'm starting to like this book. Karen Fowler makes artful observations. She delicately juxtaposes Austen's clever, unpolluted plots with more contemporary experiences.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


David Myers, in a postscript to the chapter on social psychological insights to the clinician, offers a view on happiness. What correlates with happiness? He makes the salient point that happiness has no ready-made formula, but certain tendencies are often found with happiness. He gives a few suggestions:

1. Understand that happiness cannot be "made". Circumstances change, wealth may fade away (although a certain level is certainly necessary to relieve misery) - people adapt.
2. Enjoy the moment. He quotes Benjamin Franklin: "[Happiness] is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advanages that occur every day".
3. Be in control of your time. Happy people, he says, feel in control of their lives [contrast with learned helplessness]. Mastering one's use of time is a huge step forward (I could agree with that). Apparently we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can achieve in, say, a year (by consistently working at something I presume. my project managers at work will be delighted to know this!)
4. Act happy. The frame of mind that results, even temporarily, can make you feel better. And as research into self-confirming behaviour shows, can in turn lead to reciprocated behaviours from others, making it ongoing.
5. Find activities (both work and leisure) that involve your skills. Myers mentions "flow", the sense of being "in the zone" - a state more easily achieved by exercising one's skills than on some of the most expensive forms of leisure, such as sitting on a yacht.
6. Physical exercise - like aerobics - endorses health and energy, and can curb mild depression and anxiety.
7. Sleep well. Happy people have active lives but make time to sleep enough - and find soltiude to recharge their batteries.
8. Close relationships are priority. An intimate friendship with someone who really cares about you is one of the best antidotes to unhappiness. Resolve to nurture close relationships.
9. Take care of the soul. Meaning in life and a reason to focus beyond oneself all predict happiness. In addition, many studies find that religious people have a higher report on happiness, in part because faith provides a support community.

And on that note I am off to nurture my close relationship with meaningful sleep, a state of flowing happiness broken only by my clock cd player that, uhmm, allows me to start the day in control of my time ...

Monday, December 20, 2004


I've been tempted to read from one of my newly acquired books - maybe Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, or perhaps the interesting-looking The Jane Austen Book Club. In fact that was my plan for tonight. But the movie I saw yesterday has only intensified in my thoughts, and I've been browsing the internet to find useful articles and interpretations of it.

One thing is clear - it was very controversial in 2002 (now why didn't I ever hear about it? banned on our local circuit, no doubt ...). Just to prop up the sensationalism, over 200 people walked out at Cannes - some had to receive oxygen treatment. Yes I kid you not, that's what I read - and I can almost believe it. As I'm sitting here I can still feel the fits of upset emotion swimming around me, jabbing me in the side, or tugging at my insides. This movie will not be forgotten soon. Haha, and to think I wanted a good movie to round off the weekend, haha. I know someone who's got a lot of explaining to do when I return his DVD!

Another thing that's clear: Gaspar Noe, the Argentinian-born director, intended it to be controversial (now there's a surprise!). But more interestingly, it started out as just a story about an adult sexual relationship. He wanted explicit sex, but something intimate. Belucci and Cassel didn't like the script - and that's when it became Irreversible. Apparently many scenes were improvised and almost all of them shot by handheld. I can't remember having seen so many swinging camera shots - shots that focus on the periphery of the action, circling it with a kind of geometrical method.

It turned out to be his project for a replacement of the Kubrick movie everyone hoped would be so much more: Eyes Wide Shut. Well much of the interest that EWS promised but did not deliver, Irreversible shakes out with a considerable emphasis on shock and raw emotion.

This last fact - Kubrick's influence - is nowhere clearer than at the end when the 2001: A Space Odyssey poster flits across the screen twice, in an interesting movement that's somehow reminiscent of the view from inside a plane taking off. And then reversing that same view. The step not beyond. The odyssey never taken ... the baby that will never be born.

Ok I've done that to death now. Maybe I'll do a proper write-up on it some time. I'm in two minds about it at present. It was meant as an art film - not just a shocker. It's really well crafted. And there is certainly no glamour in the violence and violations - it's all portrayed as pretty horrible and nasty, a grim day for humankind all around. On the other hand, there are arguments that view the film as a mysoginist fantasy. And my opinion hasn't fixed itself yet.

Sunday, December 19, 2004


I've just seen the French movie Irreversible. It's been a very disturbing experience. It won best film awards in Europe in 2002 - I can see why, it's almost experimental and well crafted. But very disturbing. The movie plays backwards, the way Memento does.

Spoiler warning. Not only does the second sequence in the playback contain a horrifying murder (it was so unexpected and graphic that I just sat watching in disbelief), but a little further down the line the real centrepiece of the movie unfolds as the female lead is raped in a distressing set-piece that is pure agony to watch.

The leads, played by real-life partners Vincent Cassel (Marcus) and Monica Belucci (Alex), and Albert Dupontel as the ex-boyfriend Pierre, did well. Cassell plays Alex's current beau, an impulsive lover with a thirst for drink, drugs, and women. The beautiful Monica Belucci plays the ill-fated Alex whose walk down an inner city pedestrian subway turns into a terrible nightmare. Later we find out she had a dream that echoes that red tunnel. And Dupontel - he is in fact perfect as the cerebral ex-lover (-loser-). He is counterpoint to the more animalistic Cassell, which is thematically important (see next paragraph) because he utterly fails to stop Marcus, and in the end himself commits the worst murder.

The themes aren't difficult to trace. There's the destructive effects of revenge, and the real horror of rape and violence. A descent into hell where one act of violation and violence leads to another and an awful and irreversible mess of blood and destroyed lives is the outcome. The unnerving slur from one scene to the next, where there seems to be no stopping from one end to the other, plays on the normal sequence of happy outcomes: the first scene - the aftermath of the murder - is actually the last in real time, whereas the last scene, one where Alex finds out she's pregnant and dreams a dream of suburban happiness is in fact the first. So we have a happy ending - but it's not the real ending, just the beginning of an unhappy story.

Right there the poster of 2001: A Space Odyssey is shown - twice. As reference it's the key to the theme probably, and unravels it in another sick way - the baby at the end of 2:ASO is the product of millennia of evolution (at the start of 2:ASO we see the apes looking up to the sky); but in Irreversible a baby will now never see the light of day because a bunch of men acted like stupid apes. Irreversible ends with unsettling black and white flashes increasing in speed, that's like a mind panicking nefore it conks out. It also echoes the type of visuals usually reserved for timewarps in space, another message that 2:ASO's idealistic oddysey has just been brought back down to earth.

It's a bleak view of human life. It's been a harrowing experience. I'm gonna pour me some sparkling clear water now.


I saw When the Last Sword is Drawn today - a Tartan Film with a storyline that unwinds a non-linear storyline circa 1863 and occasionally 1899, set in Japan and chronicling the story of one Konichiro Yoshimura - a Samurai. The last time a movie seemed this long was maybe when I watched Little Buddha somewhere 1996-8. Ol' Keanu - he's played some unexpected roles over the years. But I digress. The movie, long as it was, is starting to return in pieces. Always a good sign. I saw The Incredibles last week - smooth and thrilling, but I've forgotten most of it. The Incredibles - like so many thrill-rides - tends to consume itself. But WTLSID could be one of those that gradually asserts itself in memory. Well let's hope, because those 2.5 hours seemed more like 3.5 and that's a long time to sit in a movie theatre!

Elsewhere, earlier, nos humble subject had a sorry time in Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. I was looking for the GNC in the little shopping mall I'd been to several times. Alas I managed first to wander off until the far ends of Tottenham Court Road (completely the wrong direction) - then went back all the way, past Tottenham Court Road station, and onto Oxford Street. Crowds of shoppers, like a sudden heat wave. I should've known, what with Xmas around the corner. Was I distracted? Dreaming? Stuff knows, but I never found the little mall, nor GNC. After snoozing up and down Oxford street, several times missing the visual cues I should be looking for, I figured stuff it, I'll go to Holland and Barrett near Leicester Square. Thing is, I get 50% discount at GNC, but by that time I had weighed the value of getting out of that pedestrian hell. The lazy guy won.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Social support and well-being

Two simple facts, with ample researched evidence to support them, point to the physical and psychological health benefits of close and supportive relationships with friends and family:

1. When people have close, supportive relationships there is less risk of illness or premature death.
2. People with stable intimate attachments with friends and family report greater happiness than those who do not.

In the former case, it has been observed that social support correlates with better cardiovascular and immune systems. Further, the mere act of confiding trauma or personal issues allows for a reduction in tension. In other cases, not confiding early traumatic experiences resulted in more headaches, stomach ailments, and other health problems.

As regards the case for happiness, it would seem that the culture of individualism so prevalent in traditionally Western cultures is often an obstacle. Individualism allows for independence and personal achievement, but on the downside it often isolates and prevents people from building close supportive networks. The conclusions of research is unequivocal however: on average people who are attached are happier than people who are unattached. No category of marital status reports more life satisfaction than married people.

The reason why marriage improves happiness appears to be twofold - it offers a dependable partner, intimacy, and support, and prevents loneliness; and it allows for role diversification - spouse, parent, career person - each can provide relief from the other, and when things go wrong at work, the family roles can still be in good state for instance.

Somehow these findings surprise me. I don't know why exactly they do - I mean it's great. It's just - it seems too simple. Is that it? It's that simple? Oi ::scratches head::

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Necessary illusions

On the other hand, a measure of illusory thinking may be necessary for our wellbeing. In comparisons between "normal" and depressed people, research revealed an interesting tendency towards depressive realism in depressed people - sometimes also referred to as the "sadder-but-wiser" effect.

The comparisons are fascinating - whereas normal people overestimate how well liked and how competent they are, depressed people do not; normal people recall past activities in a positive glow, whereas depressed people tend to remember successes and failures equally; depressed people often accept responsibility for both successes and failures - normal people deny responsibility for failures; depressed poeple are not prone to an illusion of control, but normal people believe they have more control than they do.

In explaining these tendencies, the basis happens to be a negative explanatory style. More specifically, failures are explained by a depressed person as the result of states or events that are (a) stable ("it will never change"), (b) global ("nobody loves me, everybody hates me"), and/or (c) internal ("i am to blame"). The result? A sense of hopelessness, even despair.

So it appears that when things are tough and you're feeling down, it's kinda beneficial to believe that good things are on the way, that someone is looking out for you, that the world is your oyster, and the sky is the limit ...

So does it take more courage to look a sad thing in the eye, and see it for what it is - or see it for what it is, and still determine to be happy in spite of it? You decide.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

After-the-fact explanations

chocolate caramel biscuit bars geschmeckt

The truth is sometimes counter-intuitive. In fact, it turns out the truth may well be counter-intuitive more often than we suppose ....

I reread about this delightful bit of research tonight: in 1973 Rosenhan and seven research associates each went to separate mental hospital admissions offices to submit a complaint of "hearing voices". They gave false names and employment details, but otherwise described their life and current emotional state truthfully and honestly. Most of them were diagnosed as schizophrenic and hospitalized for a couple of weeks.

Apparently, the interviewer would guess at the outset (following the telling symptom of hearing voices presumably; hearing voices is one of the hallucinations typically associated with paranoid schizophrenia) that they were schizophrenic and then try to read evidence into all their stories. Innocuous statements (and I quote from the source) like "relationship with his wife was characteristically close and warm. Apart from occasional angry exchanges, friction was minimal" was interpreted by the interviewer as follows: "Affective stability is absent. His attempts to control emotionality with his wife and children are punctuated by angry outbursts". Amazing.

And then - wickedly! - when some staff members where Rosenhan was working heard about this research he'd been conducting, he told these members that pseudo-patients were going to seek admission to the hospital in the forthcoming months. After a period of time 193 new patients had been admitted. Asking the previously informed staff members who they thought were the fakes, 41 of the new patients were accused of pretending. Guess what? He'd made it up. None were pseudo-patients!

But before dismissing this as the illusions of people who have spent too many hours with the loony bunch, it appears that our own invulnerability to cognitive illusions is none too certain. Although the article I'm reading is trying to give advice to clinicians (which i am not, for the record), it could apply as well to our everyday certainties in drawing large conclusions from hunch-confirming information. Research to find out whether research statistics or expert intuition is the most reliable, unanimously favours the former.


Cognitive illusions can be pervasive. Like a kind of animism. I testify. Sometimes the truth is counter-intuitive ...

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Nutty novels

Naff ideas for novels I will never write.

Bosworth's Night Out

An ordinary stroll to the local pub turns sour when Bosworth accidentally unclips Rover's leash next to the high street. Dashing for no good reason, Rover meets an untimely fate at the wheels of a large, interstate oil truck. Bosworth's mourning gains a sinister aspect when the following morning he is told by his mother that Rover never existed. Sarah, the prostitute who shared his bed last night, is convinced it's a conspiracy. Together they set out into a dark world of gangster overlords and shaking rattles to uncover the amazing truth!

What critics will say: "Mr. marts' debut novel sizzles with exciting pizzazz and unflinching flair. Not only is Bosworth a believable character for such an unlikely story, he is a believable character absolutely. When Rover's soft gooey insides squish-squoosh on the tar, we feel Bosworth's agony as our own. My vote for the Noddydoddy Awards this year."

The Thought Monkey

On the planet Omnibulb 5 an experiment to investigate the properties of xargs goes astray and a monkey comes into being. On earth a father mourns the loss of his only child. At night he dreams of a monkey in a strange green place, calling his name. Can these events be linked?

What critics will say: "Audacious. Mr. marts' follow-up novel to the hugely successful Bosworth's Night Out uvovulates with viscerating visions in a fearsome and frighteningly foreign yet all too familar world. With dazzling ideas and infrigerating phrases the reader is swept along a narrow precipice of unchartered territory. After two chapters there is no putting down or going back, and one wants to scratch one's armpits with delight - just like the monkey of the title!"

Consciousness: energy?

My own idea of consciousness is of an energy that is a kind of side effect of the structure of our brains. The problem with that though, is that if our brains evolved into its present structure in order to adapt to the environment (given our other limitations); then understanding how this brain gives rise to consciousness, as a side effect, must accompany some description of why the brain is adaptive in its present state. A kettle full of fish.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Consciousness: a metaphor for reality

M has been reading Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind (a summary of ideas can be found here), and today at work we discussed the latest insight: consciousness as a metaphor for reality. What a thought! Metaphors in language, by Jaynes' account, expand consciousness. Metaphors indicate understanding. So, to understand something a metaphor is created. Consciousness.

Then the question was raised by I, what then of dreams? Because they have no necessary relation to reality. Then it hit me - dreams are metaphors of consciousness! Smoke that, Sigmund.

Speaking of consciousness in this way still assumes its existence. I.e., as something that exists despite us and hence as a verifiable object of study, rather than an observer-related interpretation of signs. It may as well be a mirage - electrical baggage - an effect of our brains' ability to retain information over those miniature split seconds at which intervals we create the building blocks of our reality. If every moment was new, and memory impossible. Good god, nor would consciousness as we understand it.

Some support for likening consciousness to a metaphor. If human consciousness is able to invent metaphor as gateway to understanding more complex structures, then from the perspectve of language games the metaphor came into being as a result of a certain conjecture that illuminates the rules of the underlying structure at the same time that it supersedes it. In dreams that play is of a freer form, and the necessary referents (consciousness playing and being played upon, i.e. the necessary adherence to language rules) may fall away completely. Pure play. Like the child that Nietzsche spoke of.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


if i could put it in reverse
i'd round up all the words
wrap them nice in simile
then dip them in hyperbole

if my memory was reversible
and passion's just a symbol
i'd write it dry and terse
and curse you in iambic verse

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Words, communication, humanness

The amazing thing about words is how, when we have used them a lot or thought about them a lot, we assume their meaning and seem to think that they are somehow real. Or, at least, signify something real. "Real?" - I hear you ask.

Outside our consciousness, apparently.

And they are also sometimes our obstacles. Take the word consciousness for instance. This little term proves stubbornly difficult to define. And whatever angle you take - and this is not a review of semiotics - the question ultimately comes along: does consciousness really exist? Oi, like we have access to dormant but pressing truths that suggest it has a reality that must be proven.

I recently happened upon information (it seems so much more though) that knocks a lot of assumptions. Read here about Koko the gorilla. Koko has a vocabulary of more than 1000 signs and understands around 2000 words in spoken English. Her IQ, on the human scale, has been measured in the range 70 to 95. That is smarter than a fair number of humans!! Many traits that we humans have, such as feelings, imagination, and thought, we've assumed to be our own. Only humans have these. No longer! Project Koko has demonstrated the intelligence of gorillas, and evidence for an abundance of behaviours we normally think of as "human behavior" ...

So does Koko have consciousness?

Monday, December 06, 2004

Prejudice theory ramble

And so the question arises, wouldn't it be optimal to always be able to respond, in every situation, according to one's beliefs? Isn't that what the spiritually evolved are often able to do, act in every situation according to their spirits' state and direction (I suspect that this phrase had its heyday a few centuries ago in British physics)?

I am reminded of some thought system (Buddhism?) that holds that one should slow down one's thinking. Trace the path of every thought, understand it fully. At any rate, if responding according to one's beliefs means controlling thought (at least at first, until it becomes a habit) there may be something in it. And what of The Matrix?

The Matrix! Neo dies, then is resurrected by Trinity (and love). Suddenly he has gone to the next level - Smith's best efforts are slow to Neo's newfound powers. Slow down thought. Thoughts die. They're lovingly revived (in a new context?). This time they are powerful.

Just a thought.


The best of prejudice theory and the best of social categorisation theory directs me to say, for social group situations:

When possible, start by thinking inclusively.
Think a little.

Prejudice: the dissociation model

As promised, the write-up on prejudice. To simplify things I will stick to the theory that, by all accounts, have much to offer studies on prejudice: the dissociation model developed by Devine.

Devine distinguishes between (1) stereotypes and (2) personal beliefs (attitudes) about group members. She explains that they are different types of stored information. The stereotype is the knowledge of attributes associated with some group, whereas prejudiced personal beliefs are the acceptance and affirmation of the content of a negative cultural stereotype.

This distinction is important because, according to Devine, different cognitive processes govern their activation: automatic processes govern activation of stereotypes, and controlled processes govern the activation of beliefs.

What does it mean that different cognitive processes govern them? Simple: in situations where there is little time, or one has little cognitive capacity, one's heuristic knowledge of a stereotype is more likely to be activated. I.e., even a person low in prejudice may respond with the stereotype, appearing highly prejudiced. Indeed, research found that high and low prejudice subjects responded much the same in such situations. Only when they were given time to convey their responses (think them over, etc.) did they respond according to their personal beliefs. In the case of low prejudice subjects, prejudice was then often in little or no evidence, and egalitarian beliefs frequently apparent.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Intergroup perception

Social categorisation theory attempts to explain, among other phenomena, the attitudes of people towards eg. in-groups and out-groups. Research found that social perceivers (eek! what a term) who had categorised other people as members of either an in-group or an out-group (even if the creation of the groups were based on meaningless or irrelevant criteria) would differentiate between them in ways that more often favoured the in-group.

Thus social perceivers would (these observations are from separate studies) (a) give greater rewards; (b) give more positive evaluations; (c) associate better physical and personal attributes; and (d) behave more sociably towards in-group members than out-group members. Out-group members would typically be viewed in a more homogeneous fashion ("they're all alike"), whereas diversity in the in-group is appreciated.

Attributions are also distributed differently across the in-group and out-group. Whereas positive actions or results by in-group members are likely to be attributed to the stable character traits of the in-group member(s), positive effects by the out-group are attributed to situational factors (i.e., they don't get any credit). Negative effects get similar treatment, in the reverse: out-group members' negative traits are confirmed, situational factors are blamed in the in-group.

Now when we go a bit further to prejudice which is where all of this is leading to, we soon find out that no one has found a cure-all for prejudice.

I digress, back to social categories. Apparently we respond to others as members of groups rather than as individuals. This, it would seem, is because our brains would pop if we had to process all the social information coming at us all day long. Instead we rely on salient social categories, based on the individuals' group membership(s), to do the work for us.

Now, in an effort to reduce intergroup bias two alternatives were researched by Gartner and colleagues (1989). In two separate scenario's, two groups were created among a group of research subjects, and intergroup bias was induced. In the one scenario the two groups were given a superordinate identity that were to replace the former separate groups (the "one group" condition). In another scenario, the two groups were broken down and individuals all sat separately (the "separate individuals" condition). So in both cases the intergroup boundary was done away with.

Well, as it turns out these two attempts at reducing intergroup bias have different effects! Whereas in the "one group" condition former out-group members received the positive biases previously reserved only for in-group members, in the "separate individuals" scenario former in-group members were evaluated less positively, and the evaluations of former out-group members did not really change.

More about the long-anticipated relation between intergroup perception and prejudice next time. The reader's patience is held in esteem.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Convergent thought

Nemeth et al (1992) did a follow-up study on Nemeth's differential minority and majority influence study, in which the possible beneficial effect of convergent thought was investigated. They hypothesised that if the nature of the task can dictate the form of thought that would be optimal, there has to be situations in which convergent thought is appropriate or useful.

The task that was employed in the study is the Stroop (1935) test, in which subjects are required to tell which colour ink a word is written in, when the ink in which the word is written continually varies. For example, the word yellow might be written in blue ink, the word red in green ink, etc. They argued that if a majority focuses on the colour of the ink then the performance of subjects would improve in giving the correct answer. Further, if a majority focused on the name, performance should decrease. The focus of a minority group, in any way, was expected to influence performance to an extent that falls between these extremes.

The outcome was almost exactly as expected: the best performers were subjects exposed to a majority that focused on the colour of ink. However, an unanticipated outcome was that the effect of minority groups on performance was almost, if not quite, the same as the majority that focused on the ink. The order was (best to poorest performance): majority on ink, minority on name, minority on ink, control group, majority on name.

Thus there may well be situations in which distractions are undesirable (the example of a pilot who must concentrate is given). The research also re-emphasises Nemeth's earlier findings that exposure to dissenting views stimulates divergent thought, improving performance and the ability to make decisions.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Influence on thought: majority vs. minority

Been reading on the differing influence of minority and majority views (C.J. Nemeth, 1986) on individuals and groups. The main thrust of the article is that exposure to a persistent minority view enables more issue-relevant and divergent thinking, whereas exposure to a persistent
majority view usually leads to unthinking acceptance and convergent thinking.

In addition, exposure to a minority view is differentiated from exposure to a majority opposition view in that the latter still focuses thought on the prevailing majority viewpoint. More specifically, although it is unlikely that the minority view will be adopted as such, it stimulates the consideration of a larger range of alternatives. I.e., not only the issues relevant to the minority view are considered, but a wider range of possibilities are considered absolutely. As a consequence of being stimulated to consider alternatives, individuals become better problem solvers and decision makers.

Nemeth links this process, and divergent thinking, to creativity and independent thinking. Since dissenting minorities and the expression of their views will by extension also enhance consideration of alternatives at a group level, their value is also mentioned in connection with a
democracy. Nemeth cites John Stuart Mill's argument that the protection of minority views is an important democratic principle, and diversity and confrontation are important because they stimulate thinking.


If this is going to become a platform for my obsession with rhymes it will be sad. Here's another one:

There's a colour that interferes
green, brown, beige, it isn't clear
it's not a colour I hold dear
bright blue and gold have disappeared
There's a colour that interferes

There is a thought that interferes
loneliness, a chasm, it's not clear
it may be something that I fear
desire, divinity, these persevere
There's a thought that interferes

There is an act that interferes
two actors, half-naked, have appeared
i watch you push him off, my dear
then there's blood and nothing's clear
There is an act that interferes