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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Flight of the Dodo

In Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland, Alice and her friends had just survived a stormy day at sea, and the wise dodo has just the answer to their rather damp plight.

What I was going to say,' said the Dodo, `was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.'

`What IS a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

`Why,' said the Dodo, `the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, `EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.'

Moral of the story: If you start out all wet, you just might end up all wet.

As a psychologist who thinks that most psychologists are all wet, this story has a particular resonance and illustration. In my last post, I noted that Rhonda Byrne's self help best seller 'The Secret' harbored a dirty little secret, namely that her 'secret' (and this is being extremely charitable) was unproven, that nobody cared to attempt to prove it, and that to follow the counsel of mere product endorsement (which is all the thing has) is to follow the counsel of a con man or a fool.

Of course Byrne's 'Secret' (i.e. think and you shall have) is merely the latest, although most eccentric variant of the oft phrased nostrum voiced from Dear Abby to Dr. Phil that that if you just think positively, challenge un-constructive thoughts, or mentally rearrange the cognitive deck chairs in one's noggin, then all would be well. The problem is, nobody has ever shown that any of this is more helpful than getting the wise counsel of your aunt, who will normally tell you the same thing. This was the conclusion of Robyn Dawes, who in his book 'House of Cards' , argued that psychotherapy is not a fraud, but that it ain't nothing special either. This was good news for family therapists (if it's a member of your family that is), but bad news for the psychotherapy industry. Of course, Dawes' conclusion caused a collective whine among therapists everywhere, who pointed to their own studies which conclusively proved that they had won the race and were the smartest and most effective of them all. But the problem is, and continues to be, that all therapists make that claim, irrespective of how they ran their race. In other words, as in Lewis Carroll's story, they all deserve prizes! This was the observation of John Horgan, who in his book 'The Undiscovered Mind' noted that awarding 1st prizes to all contestants is the same as awarding none. In other words, because therapists of all stripes claim to be equally special, they demonstrate that they aren't nothing special.

Of course, as Horgan notes, the race ain't over yet, but if prizes are given as easily as lollipops, then it never will be over, and that's a tragedy not just for psychology but for all of us.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Secret

Passed down by ancient wise men from generation to generation, and known by cognoscenti such as Aristotle, Plato, and DaVinci, was a code that revealed the secret of the universe! Endorsed by king and cleric alike, there was no denying the power of consensus. Thus it had to be true. Written in a cryptic script that has only been fully revealed to this day, the Ptolemaic Code presented a shocking wisdom that when revealed anew will overturn the settled and complacent wisdom of today!

Stay tuned for more the Oprah show, and for the movie version directed by Opie. So what is this earthshaking wisdom? Namely, that the earth is the center of the universe, the planets revolve around it, and the stars are fixed on the surface of a rotating crystal sphere. Hokum? You bet, but only because by using telescopes we can see the reality of the night sky. Certainly in the 15th century it wasn't, and Claudius Ptolemy's (ca 150 ad) crack brained theory of the universe was catapulted to truth because it got a lot of important endorsements, and because the public, then as now, was gullible and stupid.

The Secret

Move forward a few centuries, and we endure another sort of hokum in another ancient cosmic 'law', again conveniently revealed after all these centuries. In Rhonda Byrnes' multi-media epic 'The Secret' , this #1 best selling/Oprah approved piece of BS reveals a profound and ancient 'Secret' (which is mainly a variant of positive thinking: a cosmic law of attraction, or believe and you will receive) that was also the secret of success for great scientists and entrepreneurs such as Galileo, Einstein, and Ford. Well, a can do attitude or positive way of looking at the world is no secret, but it wasn't their secret for success. Attitude can not make for accomplishment, but testability does, and the ability to scientifically demonstrate that your idea/contraption actually does work is the stuff that may not make for genius, but it sure validates it. So if your model T Ford couldn't get up a hill, or if experiment didn't bear out Einstein's claims of the relativity of time and space, then such genius evaporates, and becomes merely the oddball rantings of a fool.

And this is the problem for this oddball book. Product endorsements from Oprah, pop-psychologists, and grade D celebrities are as much related to science and the scientific method as an the pronouncements of an infallible pope. If you were to pronounce that tap dancing while whistling 'Dixie' cures cancer, you can only validate your genius if you can test your great idea, not because you get a lot of product endorsements. But evidently, this doesn't apply to Byrne's grand thesis. Thus, because there are a lot of product endorsements for this book, it means, like Ptolemy's theory, it must be true. In a pigs eye that is.

So 'the secret' is crap because it poses as sciences without embracing the self criticism of science. Better to read John Horgan's book 'the Undiscovered Mind' for those more inclined for a bit more sobriety in their thinking.

And for those of you (like me) who just have a terminal case of cynicism about the stupidity of popular psychological 'science', read this 'Sham'! can read the Onion's Take on the Secret.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Socrates Hypo-Critias

A few lines from Plato's lost dialog: Hypo-Critias

Grecian Guy: Is it true Socrates, that the nature of the good is knowledge, and that with knowledge brings wisdom?

Socrates: I'd really like to answer, but I'm just snowed right now. You know, Peloponnesian War, lecture trail, that sort of thing. I'll just have to get back to you.

Grecian Guy: But Socrates, if virtue is reason, then why would it not be virtuous to reasonably act against the common wheal?

Socrates: You know, I wrote a book on just that topic, in which I of course reinvented the wheal. You can get it from Amazon, in fact there's one of them over there.

Of course, Socrates was not like this at all, which is why the wisdom of Socrates has come down to us over the millenia. But unfortunately the mind set of his antagonists exemplified in this exchange has come down to us, and it is embodied today by lawyers, politicians, and (of all people) social and physical scientists.

To demonstrate this, here's a practical experiment. Make up a question, and email some psychologist type who has plastered his accomplishments on a web site. He or she will geneally ignore you, charge you, or refer you to his latest book or lecture tape.

This is what was called in Ancient Greece sophistry. The sophists were proto academics who got paid for their wisdom and clever turn of phrase. Useful stuff when you had a dispute over property rights, or saw the potential profit in interpreting goat entrails or justify some act of cupidity or stupidity. Socrates hated those guys. For Socrates, wisdom was something you pursued because you loved it, not because it got you grant money, tenure, or lecture fees. Indeed, money is the root or should we say motivation of all evil, and that includes a heck of a lot of not just bad social science, but bad physical science too.

The problem is uniquely illustrated in an article by the distinguished physicist Frank Tipler, who noted that if you wrote on physics in the early 20th century, you did it because of love, not money, and invariably what you wrote about was not sullied by vulgar interests that compromised the love of truth. Nowadays, you write because you have to earn a living, and thus truth is denoted by the tonnage of your verbiage, not its quality. So science has turned into a gigantic muddle, with researchers bursting at the seams with conclusions full of sound, fury, and statistical significance, but meaning nothing. This also means that if you have a sound idea that can clear out some of this academic clutter, think again. A paper or article that challenges the pocket book values underscoring academic opinion likely won't get a fair hearing, or any hearing for that matter.

So if you want to be a philosopher, do it because you love it, and don't expect anyone to write you back on your insights. I am sure that in this day and age, Socrates would have traded in his real audience for a virtual one, and have blogged on about virtue and truth, unknown to all except those who loved the truth.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Nick of Time

Arguably, the most exciting and interesting part of a movie is when the protagonist disarms the bomb, missile, trap, etc. just in the nick of time. Similarly, we are just as captivated when a tied game in sport is extended for an extra inning, round, hole, etc., where one mistep also means 'sudden death', but of the metaphorical variety.

But did we ever stop to think that if all these folks just had an extra minute or two to save the world or the game, how much better it would be for everybody? It certainly would make for a less fretful moment, but we all know it would be boring as hell.

That's motivation for ya. We just can't get up for the challenge until there really is a challenge. Unwittingly, that's perhaps the greatest argument not for achievement, but for procrastination. After all, when you can save the world or the ball game with time to spare, why not make it exciting and heroic by making a certain event into something a bit chancy? So when you make it to the office, prepare your tax return, or catch the plane with a minute to spare, you're not some lazy fart, but are Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

So when we are exalting our heroes, we are really celebrating their ability to procrastinate with finesse and style. After all, they wouldn't be heroes otherwise.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mind over Matter

In a recent experiment performed by the psychologist Helen Langer, a bunch of hotel maids were told that what they were doing was a form of workout. Lo and behold, they lost weight! Although their weight loss was small, about 2 lbs, their metabolism evidently was spurred by the simple expectation that all that pillow fluffing was in fact huffing and puffing.

Langer calls this a placebo effect, but others have called it hypnosis, motivation, drive, inspiration, etc. Indeed, with the right information, people are capable of doing lots of things that can be attributed to all sorts of semi-mystical or obscure processes. But the point is there is no need to hypothesize weird psychological causes when information itself is good enough.

Indeed, a more accurate name for all this extraordinary motivation is 'semantic priming', which means that information, as processed by our cerebral cortex (the so called thinking organ or grey matter in the brain), can prime us to ignore or experience pleasure or pain, increase our metabolism, do embarrassing or stupid things, hallucinate, or even blow ourselves up. By refusing to accept the fact that the extraordinary can easily be caused by the ordinary, we open up our behavior to a myriad motivational causes from the simple placebo effect to intrinsic motivators, free will, hypnotic states or evil spirits. So the label changes, but the cause is the same, at least until the next psychologist relabels the wheel.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Indecent Exposure

A seldom discussed fact is that thousands upon thousands of American children are daily exposed to sex acts, violence, and an environment where dogs eat dog and anything else they can find. Moreover, these children are subject to dangerous and overbearing child labor practices that involve the unsupervised use of heavy machinery, and long and uncompensated hours in harsh environmental conditions. For the modern generation, we tend to think that such a life style would produce a coarsened generation who would eschew Disneyfied values for a brutish Darwinian life, but for our immediate ancestors, this was just the environment to nurture Jeffersonian democrats. That's the family farm for you, a hell hole or a forge of virtue, depending upon your point of view.

The world is a bloody minded and tough place, and for the countless generations which preceded the modern age, you had to live with it, and became a better person because of and not in spite of it. You had in other words, to learn to fend and think for yourself. Ultimately, it wasn't the hardship or the horror, but the freedom that comes with responsibility.

Which brings us of course to the latest flap about children accessing the wrong type of knowledge from text to pictures on the internet. The fact is, it is not bad experience but bad ideas that coarsen us, and a free society must assume that people will have as much resilience as they have brains, and in time will sort it all out. Indeed, a nanny state that denies the experiences that are part of being alive also denies the ability to learn from them. Our ancestors certainly did this in spite of the everyday brutality of life, and we can too.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Farce

The Boston Police recently took down a sinister looking and blinking threat that could have been for all we know the timing mechanism for some horrendous bomb, or a homing beacon for evil space aliens /Arab Terrorists/liberal Democrats (pick one).

Actually, the neon intruder was a plug for the cult cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a crime fighting trio composed of an order of french fries, milkshake, and a meatball. Actually, if reason serves, a billboard for cigarettes, liquor, or SUVs is far more alarming. But no matter, given the fevered imagination of today, the threat was there, kinda. But blame the fever. Consider this, if you were on edge about the sky falling, the last thing you want to hear is something unexpected like a balloon popping. That would set you all a flutter, and put the prankster in league with the devil, or if you're on the other side of the fence, the great Satan. It all has to do with a case of nerves, not reasoning.

But is the sky falling? Well, no. Much more likely it will be an expanding waistline rather than a terrorist bomb that will do us in. A sad fact of life is that humans are mathematically able to calculate risk but incapable of rationally responding to it, and if you add a bit of emotion to the equation, even a neon-animated order of fries can set them off. Perhaps we need a few deadly exploding doughnuts or pop-bottles to get us to focus on the truly risky things. But in lieu of terrorists sabotaging our french fry supplies, I'm not counting on it.