I am walking down the street. A bright yellow banana peel is in my path. Anyone else would assume that someone ate a banana, and being inconsiderate, threw it out of his car window.
However, I interpreted this banana as a warning from a mysterious criminal organization that I would be like the slapstick characters in old movies who slipped on banana peels and fell!
Sometimes, as Sigmund Freud, (the father of psychoanalysis) said, a cigar is just a cigar.
Freud is interesting, because he made an influential theory (in 1896) which tried to explain patterns of behavior by causes that were often very related to the idea that a cigar was not just a cigar. (Or that a mother of a mentally ill child was responsible for the mental illness. Mother blaming first became a national pastime in the early 20th century, when psychology declared the mother the dominant influence on a child’s development)
So a pattern was seen where there was no pattern.
Causal patterns are important in understanding our world, as is understanding our fellow human beings. This is obvious of course, but consider some recent examples:
- People know that Hollywood is socially liberal, and that many films coming out of it are overly obsessed with sexual topics. But after the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, a married film-CEO who sexually assaulted actresses or hinted at relations with them when they were in the vulnerable situation of being anxious to start in films, the worst (and craziest) rumors become believable. Not only because of Weinstein, but because of the rash of testimony from actors and others who worked in Hollywood or attended parties there. More than one man complained that his private parts were grabbed. Another insider said that pedophilia was common
This is strange. Why should people in any industry behave this way? It show me that I am missing some understanding of my fellow human beings. I do understand incentives – if you are a lecherous slob in control of a movie studio, and pretty actresses keep asking you for a movie-part, you might take advantage of them. But still…
2) I’ve read essays by various people on the left and right who want to trust Russia.
I wonder what they think of this item:
A museum was ceremoniously opened in Russia recently to Felix Dzherzhinsky, the founder of the notorious Soviet secret police, with the event attended by MPs and members of the FSB, Russia’s modern-day security service. The week also saw an important development in the latest closed court hearing of the widely condemned trial of Yury Dmitriev, a 61-year-old historian who has devoted most of his life to uncovering the mass graves of the victims of the Soviet secret police and identifying the perpetrators.
The shift towards rehabilitating the perpetrators of the Soviet Terror and muffling information about the victims began within a few years of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. The results are evident in the record number of Russians who have a positive attitude to the murderous Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the fact that Stalin’s portrait is found openly hanging in FSB offices.
Putin was supposed to be post-Communist – a man of faith, family values, a simple nationalist.
So why would he do this?
Causes and human nature are very interwoven here, and people often get them wrong.
I wrote a blog post a few years ago on the Vietnam war, addressing the question of whether the Americans committed atrocities or not. (Some undeniably did, at My Lai, for instance).
I believe the motive for the war was to stop Communism. Communism had swallowed up Russia, a country that is so huge that it stretches across nine time zones, it had swallowed up China (a country with three times our population), it would have swallowed up Korea except for a war that the Americans (and allies) almost lost. So it is plausible that JFK was telling the truth when he said he believed it had to be stopped from swallowing up more countries. But I’m no historian, and consider this explanation by Bob Buzzanco:
The U.S. had no singular interest in Vietnam itself, but put a huge priority on establishing global economic hegemony and, therein, on creating or restoring capitalism in Asia, with Japan (and China before 10/1/1949) as the linchpin and American partner. In that context, a small country like Vietnam was critical to provide an outlet for Japanese capitalism—via markets, consumers, raw materials, and investment. (On this point, see especially Andrew Rotter, The Path to Vietnam, also Lloyd Gardner, Approaching Vietnam, and William Borden, The Pacific Alliance.
Buzzanco is quoting three books. I will never be motivated enough to read those books, and I would not know how to evaluate them if I did.
Then as far as my citing various soldiers on the nature of the Americans who fought in Vietnam, there is this:
In his book, “Kill Anything That Moves,” Nick Turse, a historian and investigative journalist, states, “Murder, torture, rape, abuse…were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam…they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.
In “America’s Needless Wars: Cautionary Tales of U.S. Involvement in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Iraq,” historian David Contosta writes that in Turse’s analysis of the records of the War Crimes Working Group stored at the U.S. National Archives, the eyewitness testimonies of American soldiers showed that “every major army unit in Vietnam had committed atrocities against civilians.” According to Turse, “every infantry, cavalry, and airborne division, and every separate brigade that deployed.
So who am I to believe? Am I motivated enough to read Nick’s book? Would I be able to evaluate it if I did? The people I quoted in my original post (and others who are shown in Ken Burn’s documentary) come across as very believable, and they didn’t see this sort of thing. In fact, some were tortured by the Communists to say that it was happening, and resisted.
Anyway, here we have two separate issues, one causality (why the U.S. fought a war in Vietnam) and another – human nature, or how the average American soldier behaved toward the Vietnamese. Depending on how what you believe on these issues, many other conclusions follow.
So how do we get to reality?
I once had a discussion with a mathematician about convincing people with information. He thought it was “quantity” of information that mattered. I replied that quantity of ‘information’ was not enough, it was the kind of information that mattered. I gave the example of astrology. I told him that if I heard 10 stories by people who listened to their horoscope and avoided a danger, I would dismiss the stories as a false correlation. I said even with more of that type of information – say a thousand examples, I would be unconvinced. But, I said, if you could give me a causal path that made sense, that would be worth more than a thousand stories.
It doesn’t make sense to me that the arrangement of stars in the heavens have anything to do with whether I will have to change my car tire today, but if you could show that the ripples in the “big bang” that caused the distribution of matter in the universe led to both the arrangement of stars and also the arrangement of potholes in my street, I might reconsider.
Unfortunately, in many cases, you don’t have the full causal explanation, even for genuine patterns.
Or the pattern may not even be a pattern.
Back to the banana peel. Suppose I told you that I was persecuted by a Mafia (and you believed me) and suppose I told you that I was riding my bike on a slight downhill, and suddenly, I was on the ground. I hit the ground pretty hard, and ended up with lots of road-rash, but did not break or fracture any bones. I was dazed, but fortunately a woman in a car told me to get out of the road, and then gave me and my foldable bike a ride to the nearest train station.
Now suppose I tell you that I was riding my foldable bike on purpose, because it was a mountain bike, and not as high as my other bike, so that if I did fall, it would not be too violently.
Now lets add a belief of mine that the “bad guys” in my delusional system did not want me to bike, and another belief of mine that they could spray me from a car with a gas – an invisible, odorless gas, that would drift me into unconsciousness. If I were on a bike, I would fall off your bike. (suppose you believed me on that too).
Now lets skip past some other evidence here, and say that after this accident, in an attempt to appease the “bad guys” I announced to anyone who would listen that I would stay off my bike for a few months.
Now the scenario: I walk down the hill from my house. I turn the corner. I walk a few paces, and there… is the banana peel!
So is a cigar still a cigar?
I will leave that topic, but I should say that even though I’m frustrated when I tell my stories and they are not believed, I only have subjective evidence, or evidence that to other people is not evidence of anything unusual at all.
I have “sensations”.
I hear voices… For instance, if you tell me I’m a slob, I will hear your voice telling me I’m a slob. To my family, who do not see you, I’m hearing voices.
Once a person expects a pattern, he may find it. I remember reading of a disease that was discovered, that has a constellation of symptoms, and it was noted that many doctors now saw it in their patients, where in the past they had just seen random unrelated symptoms.
I have a paranoid? pattern that leads me to sometimes what is called “false positives”, but sometimes to see things are really there, which for other people who witness them would be “false negatives”.
There is a final problem in getting to reality. Suppose reality means embracing a causal explanation that you really don’t want to believe, perhaps for ethical reasons?
Heather Heying, a biology professor at Evergreen University (her husband was Bret Weinstein, another biology professor, and both had to leave, but that’s another story) says this:
perhaps most alarming, there are concerns that what is true might be ugly. Those who would impose scientific taboos therefore suggest that it is incumbent on scientists not to ask certain questions, for fear that we reveal the ugly. …
People often imagine that when a biologist argues that a pattern is the product of adaptive evolution, they are justifying that pattern. Philosophers have named this confusion the naturalistic fallacy, in which “what is” is conflated with “what ought to be.”
For instance, many people feel gender roles are caused by society and are unfair.
A scientist would ask, how do you falsify that?
In fact, some Israelis were accidentally scientific and did a test:
what if a society actually existed—not just a theoretical utopia—whose inhabitants yearned for androgyny? What if a society existed whose citizens, motivated by a burning passion for perfect justice, committed themselves to a total reorganization of the traditional family system, with the express purpose of eliminating gender? Such a society has existed, of course: the early Israeli kibbutz movement. The movement wasn’t just a precursor to modern feminism, it’s important to add. The kibbutzniks were utopian socialists who wanted to construct a society where the ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would govern the production and distribution of goods. It was as part of this larger socialist vision that the kibbutzniks set out to wipe away gender.
Kibbutz parents agreed to see their own children only two hours a day, and for the remaining 22 hours to surrender them to the collective, which would raise them androgynously (trying more to “masculinize” women than “feminize” men). Boys and girls would henceforth do the same kind of work and wear the same kind of clothes. Girls would learn to be soldiers, just like boys. Signs of “bourgeois” femininity—makeup, say—would now be taboo. As if they had stepped out of Plato’s Republic, the children would dress and undress together and even use the same showers.
The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family and gender system reasserted itself. ‘
If you were still not convinced, you could go to a National Park in Uganda (Africa), and find that:
Young chimps in the wild play boy and girl games, much like their human counterparts, scientists found.
Although both male and female chimpanzees play with sticks, girl chimps treat sticks like dolls copying their mothers as they care for infants…
It was even found that when juvenile monkeys are offered sex-stereotyped human toys, females gravitate toward dolls, whereas males are more apt to play with ‘boys’ toys’ such as trucks.
The findings were the result of 14 years of observation of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park, Uganda.
These findings are disturbing. First of all, nobody wants to be like a monkey 🙂 Secondly many people want to believe that disparities in certain fields (like math) are the result of discrimination, rather than preferences.
Heather Heying claims that the extreme leftists
have abandoned rigor and replaced it with “lived experience” as the primary source of knowledge. Little credence is given to the idea of objective reality. Science has long understood that observation can never be perfectly objective, but it also provides the ultimate tool kit with which to distinguish signal from noise—and from bias. Scientists generate complete lists of alternative hypotheses, with testable predictions, and we try to falsify our own cherished ideas.
Science is imperfect: It is slow and methodical, and it makes errors. But it does work. We have microchips, airplanes and streetlights to show for it.
In a meeting with administrators at Evergreen last May, protesters called, on camera, for college president George Bridges to target STEM (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) faculty in particular for “antibias” training, on the theory that scientists are particularly prone to racism. That’s obvious to them because scientists persist in using terms like “genetic” and “phenotype” when discussing humans.
But just because you don’t like the idea that genes affect brains, and brains affect behavior, does not mean that you can force the idea to be false by anti-bias training.
Plus, if we are talking about choice, we should look at what college majors men and women freely choose. In the U.S., we find that a similar percent choose math and science and business. But we also see that more men choose computer science, and more women choose education and social work and art. (see http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/28/359419934/who-studies-what-men-women-and-college-majors)
A radical might say that this disparity is due to discrimination, but given that there is no disparity in choosing math, science, and business, that does not make sense.
There are other examples of this kind of thinking too, where a conclusion that people don’t like is rejected, and they then try to explain reality without it and the reality they end up with is very distorted.
I explain my reality by leaving out the “cause” that is obvious to other people – that I’m insane, hallucinating, delusional etc. But suppose I’m right. Then the people around me are explaining reality by leaving out a cause – in fact they are leaving out a whole drama, much of which I myself am not aware of, but grasp at straws to explain. Even in my reality, there are a lot of loose ends, and motivations that I don’t understand, and so forth. In other people’s reality, there is just a crazy delusional system by a person who hears things and sees things, and which is nicely explained by lunacy, though there are some anomalies.
People tend to strive for coherence, which means that if there are anomalies, they are ignored or explained away. Paul Thagard, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, says the coherence involves parallel constraint satisfaction. Some of those constraints could come with a very emotional tinge, and that can interfere with our seeing reality. But so can our lack of understanding of human nature.
Perhaps it would help that when we are confronted with something hard to believe, we ask ourselves – “what would it take for this to be true?”
Ken Burns’s War Stories