June 07, 2005

Other: Curse the Scientists!

I’m really getting to hate scientists. Well, more science writers, actually.

The problem is this:

Say there are concepts you like to think about – a lot – and perhaps you’ve been thinking about them (on and off) since high school. All about perception affecting behaviour and cultural norms dictating perspective and how the expectations of those around you and the archetypes of character in your society apply a subconscious pressure to the decisions you make.

That kind of stuff.

Let’s say you’ve got a brother, a few years older than you, who you watched precede you through the society you were about to enter, and say peoples reactions to him and compared them to the reactions you encountered, and thought about the pressures he faced and if/how they varied from your own. On the down side (for me) is he’s a fantastically charismatic person – charming as all hell – where I’m not. On the up side (for me): he went first. Don’t think I don’t appreciate that!

So this is percolating happily in your brain like a tun of wine that you taste from time to time to see what age has done to it, and if it needs a bit of seasoning in a different cask. Then you encounter blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and in one of the chapters he mentions the Implicit Association Test (go there now – that’s an order), which not only articulates what you’ve been thinking, but shows experiments that have been carried out in them and what they mean.


blink, which is about gut feelings, first impressions, and unconscious snap judgements, is essential reading for anyone curious at all about how their own mind works, where ESP comes from, or what on Earth people were thinking when they elected Warren Harding president.

Oh, and put Gladwell.com in your favorites.

That alone own wouldn’t make me feel miserable; in fact, it would be considered a bit of a find if it weren’t for my reading Michael Shermers Science Friction at the same time.

As readers may have noticed, I have a bit of a fetish for communication, human interaction, and the translation of concepts into images. It’s one reason why I love discussing politics, religion, and sex: what could be more practical and intimate at the same time?

So in having a little discussion about what may be the nature of God, if there is such a thing (a God or the nature of one), I state my personal belief in the inherent limitations of communication between people and the risk of degeneracy of ideas, especially over time and between linguistic translations:

In any communication, there are at least four layers of filters between two people:
1) the mind forming the thoughts;
2) the ability to express those thoughts (method and skill;
3) the ability to receive the experssion;
4) the mind interpreting those expressions.

(Okay, okay: my typing wasn’t exactly up to snuff. Mea culpa. Now shut up about it.)

Here I am thinking I’m being terribly clever and all that, when I come across this in Shermers introduction:

“…He [Bacon] understood that there are significant psychological barriers that interfere with our understanding of the natural world, of which he identified four types, which he called idols: idols of the cave (peculiarities of thought unique to the individual that distort how facts are processed in a single mind), idols of the marketplace (the limits of language and how confusion arises when we talk to one another to express our thoughts about the facts of the world), idols of the theatre (pre-existing beliefs, like theatre plays, that may be partially or entirely fictional, and influence how we process and remember facts), and idols of the tribe (the inherited foibles of human thought endemic to all of us – the tribe – that places limits on knowledge)…

“… [Bacon continued] Idols … [do not] deceive in particulars … but form a corrupt and crookedly-set predisposition of the mind; which doth, as it were, wrest and infect all the anticipations of the understanding.”

Bloody hell.

See what you miss when you end up dropping out of school? I could have saved years of thinking about this if I had found Bacon sooner. His Novum Organum was written 375 years ago, for crying out loud; McLuhan just modernised it. How depressing. Well, at least it’s easier to read that than the purple prose of the 19th Century stuff.

I take some solace in the knowledge that Bacon admitted to taking bribes while hearing cases as Lord Chancellor (he defended himself by explaining that the presents never influenced his decision). Is it petty and vindictive of me to feel this way? Sure: minor victories against the dead are the easiest kind. Besides, my feeling will pass; the man was a great mind, but he’s dead, so what am I going to feel jealous about?

BTW: those folks who are obsessed with the thought that he wrote Shakespeare can go piss up a rope.

Back to Science Friction. While the subject, how science actually deals with heretical or unorthodox ideas, is fascinating to anyone who has had frustrated dealings with believers of either mythologies (like UFOs, or, uh, what ever this is) or the supernatural (like, well, lots and lots of stuff), Shermer himself occasionally goes dry. It’s a shame, because I want to like his writing, I want to reward him for starting The Skeptical Inquirer; but I end up feeling like I’m reading Something Important, So I Had Better Pay Attention instead of reading something that’s interesting.

The ideas are essential, and they make the book a good read, but the presentation needs work.

Now I'm off to watch Rough Cuts.


posted by Thursday at 11:26 pm


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