Search This Blog

Monday, April 30, 2007

Publish and Perish

Some years ago, the Dutch, upon realizing the apocryphal value of starving artists, decided to put them on the dole. Just complete a little masterpiece now and then, and the government will gladly purchase it, and encourage a world of artistic creation in the bargain. Well, what they ultimately got was more than they bargained for, as warehouses begin to overflow with 'masterpieces' of every stripe. Art became denominated by a new measure, not by inspiration, but by the pound.

The obvious problem is that by valuing art by quantity rather than quality, you get quantity aplenty, which buries the needle of inspiration under a ton of hay. Thus not only are you paying plenty for works of dubious and superfluous inspiration, not to mention its storage, but you lose sight of what's truly valuable. It also encourages partisanship, since now that everyone has the inspiration to be an artist, they can champion their own pile of artistic genius, tucked unseen in a warehouse corner.

It is good that the Dutch recognized the error of their ways, and that this didn't become a universally favored means for the inspiration of the artistic mind. After all, the natural demand for genius is made of a different stuff, namely a love of beauty and of truth, hardly things that can be produced at will, like an edict to produce paper clips. Unfortunately, although art cannot be commoditized on demand, it seems that the rule doesn't seem to apply for science, which is after all needed so we can make new and better stuff, or commodities. Indeed, the Dutch model is a template for nearly all modern scientific research, that has in the last fifty years multiplied the production of 'science' nearly a thousand fold.

So nowadays, we make or should we say scribble down a lot of science, tons and tons of it. So do we produce a lot of of wisdom that that is as sharp and pointed as a needle? Not really, but we make a heck of a lot of hay. For every science (including psychology) the motivation is the same. To get tenure you have to publish, get grant money, and otherwise show yourself to be a creative sort. So you write lots of journal articles, get grants, and get them published in journals that are sequestered in large warehouse facilities (college libraries) that pay a pretty penny for all this accumulated wisdom which is only available (somewhere) miles from you.

Psychology Stacks at Harvard

When the pecuniary motive supplants the creative one, then creativity is swamped by intellectual manure that does not stimulate creativity, but stifles it. This makes psychology (as well as other scientific fields of inquiry) into a constipated discipline that is so full of shit it is proverbially bursting at the seams with offal awfulness, a torrent of verbal logorrhea (see definition below), that this writer can only damn with irony.

For more on the how the Dutch model stifles science, an excellent article by the physicist Frank Tipler on its perils is here.

Logorrhoea or logorrhea (Greek λογορροια, logorrhoia, “word-flux”) is defined as an “excessive flow of words” and, when used medically, refers to incoherent talkativeness that occurs in certain kinds of mental illness, such as mania. The spoken form of logorrhoea (in the non-medical sense) is a kind of verbosity that uses superfluous or fancy words to disguise a useless or simple message as useful or intellectual, and is commonly known as “verbal diarrhea.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tiger Woods vs. one Billion Monkeys

Consider a hole of golf with Tiger Woods pitted against one billion monkeys. Besides the fact that a billion monkeys, if given enough time and typewriters, can hammer out all of the plays of Shakespeare, it stands to reason given an eternity or so that they wouldn't be all too shabby at golf either. Assuming that one billion monkeys at the 18th hole equal the efforts of one monkey making his billionth attempt at a par four, then you can be pretty sure that at least one of the little fellows will finish the hole with a score superior to Tiger.

So what are we to make of our triumphant little duffer? You can conclude that there is something special about the monkey that makes him better than Tiger, or that perhaps he merely was lucky, given of course the billion to one odds. Playing the hole again would of course prove no contest, as the little simian would regress back to the mean of his peers, which should be around 500,000 strokes per hole, at least.

Still, one can be left with the opinion that there was something to be said about the monkey's skill, in spite of the fact that there was no explaining his accomplishment outside of pure blind luck. This predilection to derive lawfulness from simple correlations or patterns represents the problem of induction. Induction is defined as the imputation of lawfulness from a limited or token number of phenomenal patterns. And it is also at root, illogical. Thus, to follow the argument of the philosopher David Hume, noticing that the sun rises day after day leads one to imputes a lawfulness (i.e. the sun will rise each dawn forever) to the state of affairs that does not logically follow from that observation. It just takes one example of the sun not rising for such a law to be refuted, something that such a 'law' cannot guarantee.

But logic has never stopped one type of monkey, namely homo-sapiens, from seeing lawfulness in all sorts of correlations. From tea leaves to the movements of the planets, there is always some type of correlation between physical events and behavior that can ascend to the realm of law. Nowadays, we've progressed from the days of reading goat entrails, and have new correlations that map the order of our personal worlds. This psycho-logical (actually an oxymoron) way of looking at things give us new laws of behavior, all of course that follow from simple correlations. Psychologists love correlation, which like scripture can be interpreted for their own, often devilish purposes. Indeed, correlations are embedded in the very way psychologists do science, as they statistically correlate one set of observations with another to find with the assurance of a court astrologer the psychological laws that like the stars, rule our behavior. But simple correlations and the rules they engender are merely ways of explaining things on the cheap, and as with anything that comes cheap, you get what you pay for. Indeed, with such an easy currency of 'knowing', no one really gets to know anything, as the cacophony of psychological laws, from the psychoanalytic to the evolutionary attest.

For any aspect of behavior, a true explanation must look at all the things in the shadows, the events that vault from mere uni-dimensional correlation to reflect the true multi-dimensional mechanics of the world. Thus a problem of behavior must be examined from all vantages. A true psychological explanation therefore imputes order or lawfulness from an examination of all the phenomenal patterns of the world, from the qualia of experience (pain, pleasure), to behavioral (what we do), cognitive (what we think), neurological and biological events. By considering all the possibilities, there is no extraneous possibility that can intrude, and make a sunless dawn. But this requires a bit of modesty, a healthy dose of self criticism, and an awareness that the truth most likely lurks not in our hubris, but in the shadows. Characteristics which alas are in short supply when one reads the rambling and transient certitudes of psychology.

For more on this cautionary tale of the power of what we don't know, consider the Black Swan.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

FedEx to Russia and the Thunderbolts of Zeus

In the movie 'Castaway', Tom Hanks plays a FedEx employee who trains his wayward Russian staff to deliver the goods on time, and then flies out to home, naturally by the short route over the Pacific. The plane gets hit by lightning, crashes into the ocean, and everyone dies except Tom, who is marooned on a desert island for several years. When he manages to escape, he finds that his wife has left him, and that he has somehow lost his taste for sushi and crab legs.

To which I say, serves the BASTARD right!!

Fed Ex employees on raft

Perhaps I can explain my delicate mood, and the greater lesson of moodiness. It all began with a Fed Ex package to of course, Russia. Sent by urgent/express/got to be there on time delivery, the envelope contained plane tickets for my mother in law. (Yes, I have a mother in law in Russia, which perhaps to most of you readers is a swell place to send your mother in law). And so the package got to Russia, and sat, and sat, and sat. The tracking number could just as well have been a number of a cemetery plot, since the thing stayed buried for four weeks, and now as I write is probably high tailing it to the Urals by mule train. And so what did my queries to Fed Ex show me? Nothing. They didn't know who was responsible, who to call, or why my $68 dollar investment has less meaning than a 39 cent postage stamp.

I was not happy, and for this they would all die. Now my wrath is not exactly normal, and I expect cosmic retribution for this violation of natural, or should I say, postal law. So, if God (or Zeus) would have lent an ear, he would have taken down scores of Fed Ex planes with Jovian thunderbolts. Nothing would have pleased me more. Of course, I would have had a twinge of regret in hindsight, but more likely a realization of the psychological truth that if it itches, it must be scratched, no matter how many will ultimately die in the scratching. The philosopher Hannah Arendt thought that evil was at root a banal act, but I would suggest that it is more often due because we are simply pissed off and need someone to swat. If we think of it, making a decision due to a moment's bad feeling it not exactly a good reason to do anything, let alone wiping out scores of people. Nonetheless if we could we would do it all the time, and it's a good thing that we don't have a personal genie to settle scores when we are particularly cross.

As a postscript, the movie 'Castaway' ends happily, as a deleted scene shows Tom returning to the house of a dishy babe whose package he just delivered, three years late. As he smiles at her, she takes a shotgun and blows his head off.

Yes, Virginia, there is a god.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Get Oprah out of my head NOW!

Recently, some pastors at Anglican Churches in England came up with an ingenious idea to raise some spare change to support their struggling parishes. They figured that placing cell phone towers in church steeples would enable them to be a heavenly beacon in a literal as well as metaphorical sense, and thus serve God and mammon. Well, the mammon part was ok until some wit came up with the revelation that with mammon came mammaries, and that churches would become unwitting broadcasters of not just the holy word, but dirty ones.

In the invisible mesh of static which represents the public airwaves, we are constantly being bombarded with stuff that thankfully our eyes and ears cannot pick up, yet nonetheless can be rendered by our imagination. Now, I am as aghast as anyone at the prospect of having the Oprah network beamed into my head 24/7 by some orbiting satellite, but I've learned to live with the metaphor, and not give it life.

But unfortunately, as creatures that use metaphor in lieu of logic, the very picture of nudie pictures being bounced off a metal reflector is cause for apoplexy, even though the same pictures are constantly being bounced off our very thick skulls. The problem though is that we often confuse metaphor with logic, and our arguments become slanted by the alliterative rather than the literal. Thus a mud fish becomes edible once renamed sea trout, gross negligence becomes forgivable when it is friendly fire, and helpful conversation becomes billable if its called psychotherapy. Unfortunately, we cannot live without metaphor so we are faced with the prospect of continually making decisions because of what things are like rather than what they are. As the metaphor goes, it's not a pretty picture.