Thoughts on “The Geography of Thought”

First things first: I wanted to read this book because my wife is Vietnamese. I’ve spent 20 years married to Alexis and had time to observe how she handles things and I handle things. This puts me at a disadvantage. When she moved from Vietnam to New Orleans, she was five or six, so she has a good 14 or 15 years on me in observing differences and navigating her way in a culture that is different than the one she experiences with her immediate family. I wanted to do a little catch up.

She summed it up nicely when I asked if she wanted to read the book: “I’m sure it won’t tell me anything I don’t already know.”

The book’s shortcomings are apparent almost immediately:

I believed all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. … [I wrote a book] titled Human Inference. Not Western Inference (and certainly not American college student inference!), but human inference. The book characterized what I took to the inferential rules that people everywhere use to understand the world…

I’m a little more than a little surprised that someone could become an academic in human psychology and not understand that people from different cultures see the world in remarkably different ways.

Now, that aside, the book does have the some great insights that come from research the author and others have performed.

If you want a 30-second (or less) synopsis of the book, here it is:

People in the West see the world consisting of various parts. Understand how an individual thing acts and you’ll be able to make reliable predictions about how it will act in any situation.

Meanwhile, people in the East see the world more like an interdependent system. Making predictions based on how you’ve seen something (or someone!) act in isolation is foolish since context is the determining factor in what will happen now.

Of course, when you divide the world up this way, you run into the problem of over-simplification. And, as he makes apparent by comparing populations, the Eastern and Western modes of thought are not a binary system. Asian-Americans, people from Hong Kong and sometimes Germans regularly straddle the East/West divide.

The people who are the penultimate Westerners are Americans, followed by Canadians and the British. Meanwhile, Easterners start with the Chinese and Japanese and move from there.

In the first part of the book, he talks about Aristotle and Confucius and how they created two different systems of thought. The origins of these two modes of thinking, then, are presented as Greek vs Chinese.

What interested me was that Western thought later became more clearly Protestant thought – the connection to Greece was in its generation, but not the “best” modern form. In fact, a lot of my exposure to Orthodox thought has shown that there are sometimes more similarities with Eastern religion than with American Christianity.

Overall, even though this book provided some good food for thought and the studies performed were useful, I was put off by the author’s acknowledgement that he was relatively unaware of thse differences until relatively late in his career.

Zombies and Morality

Over the past few years, old farts like myself have watched with some confusion the emergence of zombies in popular culture.  In one sense, I get it — zombies are a trope, a device that can be easily reused for story telling, just like space ships or time travel in much of science fiction.  But what makes them so popular?

And then, while reading through the comments on Fr Stephen‘s post titled “Sin is not a moral problem” (always read the comments on his blog posts), I came across this gem:

There’s a book called “I, Zombie”, in which the experience of being a zombie is told from the point of view of various people still conscious, but trapped within a body that has its own needs and does horrific things. Some people grow to enjoy the experience; some people struggle against it; some people find that while they have no control, they can exert a subtle influence. All the while their bodies are decaying around them. This is as close as I can come to an understanding of the sin problem.

This synopsis is as close as I can come to an understanding of zombie fiction.  It’s the first time I’m actually interested in a book about zombies.  I’m going to have to add this one to my reading list.

Brief review of Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God

Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peaceWhy I am an Atheist Who Believes in God: How to give love, create beauty and find peace by Frank Schaeffer
Originally written on goodreads while 30,000 feet over the east coast.

Like someone else said, the book is full of one liners. As I tweeted my way through the book, you could see how offended dogmatic people were by the title.

If you can make it past the title, though, you will find that he has written an book full of honest uncertainty, one that shows how you can give up on the certainty of youth without becoming lost in cynicism and bitterness.

Propaganda, first take

I’m half way through Edward Bernays book from 1928 titled Propaganda. (Yes, I’m a slow reader.)

I first became interested in Bernays after seeing The Century of the Self — a documentary that I highly recommend. Bernays was Freud’s nephew and, after working as a propagandist during the first world war, he took what he had learned and developed what is now modern marketing. In 1928, after he had successfully used what he learned in the war to get women to take up smoking, he wrote the handbook for marketing (although he thought of it mostly as public relations) titled Propaganda.

A recent blog post from The Last Psychiatrist caused me to track down Bernays’ book and I’m finding it quite useful.

He makes it very clear that modern marketing is tied to mass production:

Mass production is only profitable if its rhythm can be maintained — that is, if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity. The result is that while, under the handicraft or small-unit system of production that was typical a century ago, demand created the supply, to-day supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand. A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.

This (“supply must create demand”) is distasteful to me, but prior to reading this I had some romantic notions about why modern marketing developed. Here it is clear it wasn’t simply evil business men deciding to increase demand for their products, but that this was the result of the introduction mass production which allows more people access to more goods. (Of course, this could lead to a conversation about sustainability, but I’ll gloss over that for now.)

The other thing that I find distasteful is his view of the public as something to be influenced and directed.

This invisible, intertwining structure of groupings and associations is the mechanism by which democracy has organized its group mind and simplified its mass thinking. To deplore the existence of such a mechanism is to ask for a society such as never was and never will be. To admit that it easts, but expect that it shall not be used, is unreasonable.

He makes his case quite well and one can see quite clearly that he is tries very hard to use his “power” in an ethical manner, but it still leaves you feeling a little uneasy.

So, what can we get from all this? For myself, as I work on promoting the use of MediaWiki, I’m taking seriously what he says about listening to the “public” and making sure that they are not totally against what you’re producing. Many people see the popularity of Wikipedia and decide they want something similar. And, MediaWiki is available and (relatively) easy to set up. The problem comes after people run it for any amount of time. That is the bit we haven’t worked on. And that is the area that we’ve realized needs work. Figuring out what people think MediaWiki is going to do, but fails at, and then delivering that. That is the big area where we can win.

And Bernays has helped me think about practical ways to do that. It isn’t a long book, but I’ll be re-reading it to write some notes for myself about how I can do things differently.

Autistic like me

The Reason I Jump is the first book of its kind: a first-person account of the experience of autism written by an autistic 13-year-old boy.

Reading it, I was impressed by how the struggles he has are the same as everyone else’s, but how much more in-tune he is with the discomfort that he causes others.

For instance, his answers to questions like “Why do we have to tell you things over and over?” or “Why don’t you remember what we’ve told you” almost always include a plea to “stick with me” after attempting to explain why he does something incomprehensible or irritating.

I could see him struggling to be understood, realizing that the things he did irritated people and feeling despondent because of how these things affected those around him. But he couldn’t stop as easily as I can.

Despite this — or because of this — he seemed more motivated than I am to figure out how to control his involuntary actions.

It left me feeling a little guilty — like how I felt about myself when I heard about the dyslexic lawyer who was motivated to develop ways of learning and remembering that I’ve never even bothered with.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

I love to read, and I love to read books that make learning fun; The Information is one of those books.

I’ve been enjoying the trip the book provides. It talks about the some of the oldest written language we have and quotes Plato sounding like a teacher complaining about the invention of the pocket calculator:

For this invention [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it. … You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.

Imagine if Plato saw how many of us use more modern technology — an always-available Internet search engine, for example — so that we don’t even have to think twice about getting access to entire libraries of “the appearance of wisdom”.

It goes on from there to explain how people in Africa developed long-distance communication with their “talking drums” long before Europeans had strung up the first telegraph. He uses the telegraph to lead into a discussion of cryptography, information theory, and data compression.

Over and over, he returns to this idea of how we communicate and collect and understand our knowledge. In the process he introduces people like Gödel and his incompleteness theorem or lesser known people like his student, Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician who so fascinated me that I went looking for the source of a quote and discovered his “Paradoxes of Randomness, a piece of which I’ve managed to quote in my email signature:

Sometimes mathematical truth is completely random and has no structure or pattern that we will ever be able to understand. It is not the case that simple clear questions have simple clear answers, not even in the world of pure ideas, and much less so in the messy real world of everyday life.

Of course, any recent book about how we think about what we know and how we collect and classify what we know wouldn’t be complete without some discussion of Wikipedia. And, here, there was a hidden gem for me. I discovered that I know one of the characters in a story he tells about the growth of an article about a butcher shop in South Africa. Jimbo Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, created a stub article about a butcher shop he visited and a few hours later, ^demon, a developer I’ve worked with at Wikimedia and grown to respect for his keen eye for detail proposes deletion.

I fairly squealed when I saw ^demon’s handle in the book.

But even if you don’t know ^demon or appreciate the finer details of information theory, you’ll likely enjoy the book. I asked my 14 year old son to read a bit and he quickly tore through the first few chapters before agreeing that it was well-written, fairly entertaining, and accessible.

Recommended Reading: 1491

I just finished reading 1491 by Charles C. Mann, and I have to say, everyone should read this.

Columbus discovery of the Americas changed the world, but until reading this book, I didn’t have any clue of the degree to which the world changed. Before reading it, the idea I had of the Americas that Europeans discovered was closer to that of the noble savage than anything else. In my old, incorrect, paradigm, the indigenous population was destroyed by the genocide of greedy conquistadors and similar violence.

Instead, anthropologists now think that that the population of the New World rivaled that of the Old, but the people there lacked genetic diversity. An example of this would be the distribution of blood types. The A and B blood alleles were almost completely absent in Central and South America, so that the entire population had Type O blood.

As a result of this homogeneity, the lack of exposure to contagious diseases like smallpox and the plague, and the resulting ignorance of how to use quarantine meant that disease decimated 90% of the indigenous population before they even saw an explorer.

That information alone cast the native population in a new light. But this also means that the populations of the various fauna found in the Americas was much smaller than later observed. For example, the natives kept large animals like the bison a days journey from any village and kept their population under control.

Another story of the fauna of North America is the passenger pigeon. It is now extinct, but John James Audubon recorded watching what must have been billions of pigeons passing overhead for three days straight. The bird was not seen in this magnitude because the indigenous people kept them in check.

Finally, 1491 showed me that the foods from the Americas have become the staples of the world. Three of the top five staple foods that the world consumes — maize (corn), potatoes, and cassava — have their origins in the Americas. Mann asserts that the introduction of cassava into Africa made the later slave trade possible since it became the staple of choice in much of Africa.

I haven’t even talked about how great the civilizations in America were — empires rivaling those of ancient Rome grew and thrived and then died out centuries before the first explorer showed up. In the past, some people have floated theories of ancient European colonizers to explain the unexpected sophistication that we found among the “noble savages”.

So go get a copy of 1491. You won’t regret it.

Last thoughts about “You are not so smart”

[photocommons file=”A_stunned_public_in_Washington,_D.C.,_were_grave_and_thoughtful_the_morning_after_they_had_been_informed_of_the_death…_-_NARA_-_520710.jpg” width=180]One thing to take away from the book “You are not so smart” (besides the fact that we humans are very good at fooling ourselves) is inspiration. For any unpublished writer, David McRaney’s story is inspirational. As he relates in the acknowledgments, he and his wife moved from Mississippi to Europe (seemingly on a whim) without a college education. By the time they returned to the States, they both realized how much they lacked in education and, six years after high school, when some in their cohort would be getting a graduate degree, they started college as freshmen.

The introduction to psychology professor was so compelling that he started his weblog and, from that, eventually the book was born.

Like many other books-from-blogs, this book is a series of essays. It differs from them in that it includes an extensive form of hyperlinks, in the more traditional form of a references for each chapter.

For instance, in the chapter on self-handicapping — creating situations for your own failure so that you can blame something else if you don’t succeed, or feel extra good about surmounting the odds if you succeed — David says that studies show men are more likely to self handicap than women, which made me wonder if this was different for different cultures, or if part of this was gender inequality at play: that the obstacles women face made it unnecessary for them to create artificial handicaps. Now I get to read the relevant studies and find out more information.

Overall though, my takeaway from this book was just to reinforce my prejudice against those people who are confident that their intelligence is a guard against stupidity. As he shows through study after study, no matter how much of a rational an actor we think we are, the situations we find ourselves in and the choices we make tend not to be well thought out, let alone rational.

Thank goodness economics is moving beyond this tautology.

The Affect Heuristic and the Power of the Story

[photocommons file=”B&W Happiness.jpg” width=180]Adherents of the modern cult of reason see facts as much more valuable and useful than stories. “We are influenced only by reality, by the facts.” This tends to be the way they separate themselves in their narrative from those they refer to as “religionists”.

But this ignores what modern psychology has discovered and what ancient religions have capitalized on: No matter how rational we think we are, no matter how well thought out and considered we try to ensure our decisions are, we use emotion as the basis for most of our decisions. And emotional decisions are based on the story that plays out in our mind every day.

The book You Are Not So Smart ends its chapter about the Affect Heuristic, with the story of Elliot, a successful businessman who, as the result of the removal of a brain tumor, lost any ability to make decisions influenced by emotion.

He appeared normal and continued to score well on IQ tests, but after the surgery, his life fell apart. His wife left him and he lost his job. He went to live with his parents who were evidently the only people who could tolerate him.

We are often told not to make decisions based only on emotion — to be rational. But Elliot’s case shows us what would happen if we made decisions based only on facts: we would fall apart.

Our emotional self responds better to stories. For the past few hundred years, we’ve had tremendous success as a society building on the advances we’ve gained through science and a more rational approach to life. This has led some of us to think that stories aren’t useful for anything more than entertainment — certainly we shouldn’t let them guide our decision-making!

But in jettisoning religions and the stories that come with them, we’ll just end up creating new stories. The stories will be less mature, less developed, less well thought out and we’ll all suffer as a result.

I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that the stories that religions offer us are a deeper and more valuable form of truth. The affect heuristic and Elliot show us that the influence stories have on our decision making is far more important to us than any collection of mere facts.

You are Not so Smart — Introspection

[photocommons file=”Philly Thinker.JPG” width=180]The Introspection chapter of You are Not so Smart tells of a study where researchers asked people to rate five types of jam. They five jams the picked had already been rated by Consumer Reports as the 1st, 11th, 24th, 32nd, and 44th in terms of quality.

The asked the first group to provide a list of their preferences by rank without explaining why they ranked each one where they ranked them.

They requested an explanation for the rankings from the second group.

The group just gave a gut reaction came close to matching the rankings given by Consumer Reports. The group that was asked to rationalize their choice ended up being all over the map without any correlation to the ranking from Consumer Reports.

The appropriately-named study (“Thinking too much”) shows why it is dangerous to put too much trust in the power of reason to help us make decisions.

The very act of explaining why we make a choice will cause our decisions to degrade in quality.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a reason for our choices is a bad thing. People in the study were measured against those with experience in judging food quality, after all, so it is possible to be rationale about our decisions and still make good ones.

And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust the ability of untrained professionals. The people in the first group came to the same conclusion as the professional food testers.

Instead, I would suggest that this study tells us that the act of making rational, well-reasoned decisions is harder than we think.

Just because someone is able to explain their reasoning for their decision doesn’t mean that decision is any better than someone who is just going with their gut.

(Of course, the chapter just before the one on introspection was about normalcy bias and how it causes many people to not to act to save their own lives in emergency situations, so this shows us that just going with your gut doesn’t always work, either.)