You are Not so Smart — Priming

[photocommons file=”Armored-car-Manila.jpg” width=180]Derren Brown has produced a number of British TV Shows about priming that are really fascinating to watch. Even though he is a public figure, he is able to use priming to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, including, in one show, robbing an armed car.

I just started reading You are Not so Smart, and the first chapter was on priming, appropriately enough.

Priming is all about the subconscious — the extra-rational — something that, over the millennial, religions have adapted to. In the West, though, we don’t really seem to value things we can’t reason our way towards. You can see this in Christianity before the Enlightenment and even before the Protestant Reformation — even before the advent of Thomism — in the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

The Church saw “This is my body” and dogmatized the premise that made that statement literally true. Eastern Christians, who have been more comfortable with a mystical understanding of truth, simply accepted the statement as true without the need for philosophical and dogmatic exercises.

Over time, I’ve come to the opinion that the different directions the Eastern and Western churches took on the idea of what has come to be known as the “real presence” are reflected in a lot of other areas — including what I have been calling the modern Cult of Reason.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological priming?

Priming is what happens when you act in a way that is largely influenced by your extra-rational mind. Priming is dependent upon cues that come from your environment. Derren Brown is adept at creating these sorts of cues for people, but you can also see these cues in the Liturgy of any Eastern Church. The smells, sights and sounds (which have all been developed over the centuries) all prime the person and provoke an extra-rational response.

In the West, many protestant denominations explicitly shy away from creating this sort of “heavenly” environment. Many Mennonite churches, for example, explicitly shy away from any environmental cues. While they certainly are not as explicit in their rationalism as others – Presbyterians, for example — they’re like so many in the West who don’t seem to see any use in anything that cannot be rationally explained.

But, as You are Not so Smart makes clear, even in the first chapter on Priming, we are not the rational, thoughtful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.

The Fat Years

[photocommons file=”Jasmine_Revolution_in_China_-_Beijing_11_02_20_police.jpg” width=180]I’ve been reading a book The Fat Years, a book by a Chinese author that seems to posit a transition from Orwellian control to Huxlean control.

I just finished reading the following bit and had to share:

Lao Chen then considered a new concept: “90 percent freedom.” We are already very free now: 90 percent, or even more, of subjects can be freely discussed, and 90 percent, or even more, of all activities are no longer subject to government control. Isn’t that enough? The vast majority of the population cannot even handle 90 percent freedom, they think it’s too much. Aren’t they complaining about information overload and being entertained too much?

And furthermore, when the national situation permits, the state can always relax its restrictions and permit up to 95 percent freedom. Maybe we already have 95 percent? This would be very little less than in the West. Western nations also have some restrictions on freedom of speech and action. The German government restricts neo-Nazi organisations, and many states in the United States deny homosexuals the freedom to marry. The only disparity is that, theoretically, the power of Western governments is given to them by the people, while in China the people’s freedom is given to them by the government. Is this distinction really that important?

The more time goes by, the closer China and the U.S. become. China is on track to pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2020. When that time comes, what is the real difference between our democratic free market capitalism and their state-controlled economy? I’m hopeful that we can still claim “rule of law” as a distinctive feature, but even that is disappearing. We can still watch the trial of Bo Xilai’s wife smugly, but how long will our smugness last?

My one-man crusade against the rebirth of the Cult of Reason

[photocommons file=”Alter_of_reason.jpg” width=”180″]I recently read When Atheism Becomes Religion under its more provocative original title: I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

The author, Chris Hedges is becoming one of my favorite authors. The first book that I read of his, The Death of the Liberal Class was a great history of classical liberalism — something that all political ideologies today could learn from.

Chris Hedges is a fascinating writer and the perfect author for a book that offers a critique of the modern Cult of Reason. (It is important to note that the use of the word “cult” here reflects the thinking in this footnote of that article: The word “cult” in French means “a form of worship”, without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English; its proponents intended it to be a universal congregation.)

In fact, although I had this blog post in mind, it wasn’t till I started looking for a picture to accompany it (the Alter of Reason was perfect) that I learned about the Cult of Reason from the time of the French revolution.

That period of time is a great precedent for what happened since September 11, 2001 in the New Atheist movement.

Some people saw religion itself as the cause for the violence inherent in the terrorist attacks. If religion didn’t exist, the movement seems to say, no one would have an excuse to slaughter any group of people.

Chris Hedges’ book is a powerful antidote to this fantasy. Not only does he remind us that the greatest genocides of the 20th century were secular in nature, but he also asks us to consider human limitations in any solutions we propose: No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations.

Humans — whether created by God 6000 years ago, or just some random chance of the universe — have some very stark limitations. Making religion a demon while deifying reason will not solve anything.

I came across another book today while browsing the bookstore, You Are Not So Smart, that really began to drive home the point of our limitations. As the book points out, Even when we think we’re being rational and thinking things through carefully, our emotional brain, our subconscious, is the one really running the show. (I’ve requested a copy of the book from my local library, so I’ll post more about it after I’ve read more.)

Amusingly, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was nearby and I had time to read the introduction where he talks about the humility of Atheism. He’s right: we should all be able to say “I don’t know”.

But he says that saying “I don’t know” makes you an atheist and here I disagree. I know we haven’t done a great job of celebrating doubt, but even as great a Christian as Mother Teresa had doubts. That didn’t make her less of a Christian — it was simply part of her humanity. You have the chance to say — like Christopher Hitchen’s did — that this makes her a fraud, but I prefer the title “human.” Not knowing, doubting is a fully human thing to do.

It is fine to celebrate everything that reason gives us — and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot through the use of the rational mind — but, as Hedges rightly points out in When Atheism Becomes Religion, as much as reason has helped us reach new heights, it has empowered evil to new depravity.

There is no scientific utopia and efforts to create one only end in destruction. Achieving Utopia must mean destroying everyone that you can’t convince to join you. St Isaac the Syrian put it this way: “If zeal [using passion to convince others of the truth] had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did Jesus use gentleness and humility?”

Fr. Men

Today I got my copy of “Fr Alexander Men; Martyr of Atheism”.

Since I like to read this sort of book with my kids, I sat down with them and we read the first chapter.

The book starts out with a broad overview of the history of the Church in Russia to provide a context for Fr Men’s birth and life. This is good for those, like me, who are mostly ignorant of history. As I’m sure many of you know, the Church in Russia did not have an easy time.

As is clear from the first chapter, the Church became dependent upon the State and then had to cope when the States protection disappeared.

My curiosity was piqued, though, by mention of the aborted Council of Moscow in 1918. The author says it had potential to be Russia’s Vatican II but, instead, became a dead letter. Research is needed!

Feeling Smarter

[photocommons file='”Citation_needed”.jpg’ width=”300″]For the first time ever, I replaced a citation needed template in Wikipedia with an actual citation. And, even better, I am pretty sure it is gonna stick.

The fact template was on the Absolute hot article which I came across after while reading The Hour of Our Delight.

This book as turned into a very readable introduction to particle physics for me. In fact, I was reading some parts of it to my son and he asked me some questions (of course) that I couldn’t really answer. “To Wikipedia!” was the natural solution. And I saw that a citation was needed for something I had just read.

Even better, I learned that there is a direct link between Quantum gravity (which was in the book’s quote) and the theory of everything.

So, yeah, I’m recommending The Hour of Our Delight (or in the original French as L’heure de s’enivrer). You should find it and read it if you have any interest in this sort of thing. I’ll probably write a post later about the chapter titled “An Anthropic Principle”.

Thoughts from The Checklist Manifesto

Just over a month ago, I read The Checklist Manifesto and I’ve been meaning to write up my thoughts on it ever since. Since I’ve waited so long to write this, I’m going to rely on the notes I typed up one night when I was thinking about this book as well as a another related article that I read along the way.

I first heard about this book a couple of years ago from a review I read in Powell’s now discontinued review-a-day. Based only on the reviews I read and my initial experience developing MediaWiki, I started MediaWiki’s Pre-commit checklist. Last month, when Guillaume Paumier told me he had started reading the book after looking over the checklist, I decided I really should read the book myself.

Atul Gawande wrote the book to write about how worked with the WHO to introduce checklists into the surgery room. He talks about the history of checklists, starting with the pre-flight checklists that were developed after a tragic accident involving an experienced test pilot and a new, more complex, B-17 in 1935.

In each of these situations, you’re dealing with complexity and helping a person with superior domain knowledge avoid silly mistakes.

In the surgery room, this involves empowering nurses and anesthesiologists to call the surgeon out if they see something amiss. Everyone agrees, and even gets the patient to agree to what procedure will actually be performed. Getting surgeons to use these checklists wasn’t easy, but when they did, errors were caught.

The past century (even the past 30 years) has seen great strides in what we can do. Our ability has jumped exponentially. At the same time, the amount of complexity that we have to deal with has grown exponentially. We are only starting to develop are ways to manage the complexity but those who have managed to master some of the it are treated like rock stars. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone use the term “rock star” to refer to a really proficient person. Even they can make mistakes, though, and so we have things like code review where all code written is examined and critiqued by others.

I’m no where close to a rock star programmer, so those code reviews would turn up some of the same things every time. As a result, the checklist was born and has been adopted and maintained by the community since then.

But back to the book. The Checklist Manifesto outlines the successful use of checklists to enable communication between the expert and people around him. This is one the real benefit of checklists. Recognizing that everyone makes mistakes and needs to be open to correction from others that they are working with is one thing that checklists are really good at whether they are used in the cockpit or the surgery room.

Other activities still benefit from cooperation and communication, but as Susan Cain says in her editorial “The Rise of the New Groupthink”, it is dangerous to fetishise cooperation and team work. Her piece ends with this great bit of insight, though:

Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas. What distinguished these interactions was how low-key they were. For Mr. Wozniak, collaboration meant the ability to share a doughnut and a brainwave with his laid-back, poorly dressed colleagues — who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.

Collaboration is important, but the surgeon still needs to be the one holding the scalpel.

Creating Patterns out of Chaos: a review of Voodoo Histories

We’re pattern seekers. We want there to be order in the world. We humans want order so much that we’ll see an organizing force where, in reality, there is none. That was how I explained “Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History” to a friend of mine when I was half-way through it. But, even knowing that, I’m not immune from the seductive draw of the conspiracy. In fact, I love a good conspiracy. Conspiracies, as David Aaronovitch points out, make it all fit. Where we’re overwhelmed with sadness or loss when a president or princess is killed, we seek, perversely, some sort of comfort in the idea that they had it all planned out — that there was a bigger purpose behind it all instead of a lone gunman or a drunk driver who could cause the world so much harm. Aaronovitch starts Voodoo Histories by explaining that the application of Occam’s Razor to every conspiracy theory he writes about will show that there is some far simpler explanation for what happened than a hidden, all-powerful hand. And he succeeds, showing us that a skeptical approach to the larger conspiracy theories, such as JFK’s assassination, Dan Brown‘s novels, the Truthers on the left, or the Birthers on the right, reveals that a more mundane, simpler explanation of the facts is better at explaining what happened. And just in case these conspiracy theories are too close to your heart, this British writer produces a couple of British MPs who’ve championed theories saying “someone” had murdered people and then covered it up. Watching his dissection of these and other conspiracy theories I hadn’t heard of showed how much in common all these conspiracy theories have with each other. And, in the end, it makes it easier to accept that, maybe, just maybe, my pet conspiracy theory is just benign happenstance rather than a very successful plot. History may be written by the winners, but in the final chapter Aaronovitch makes a good case that conspiracy theories are the attempts of the losers write history. “We didn’t win,” they seem to be saying, “because the winners are so devious, conniving, and powerful. They’ll do anything to win.” So we’re comforted that if we didn’t persuade people that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were really nefarious individuals, at least we kept our morals, at least we were ethical. They were successful because they managed to deceive the sheeple.

I agree with Cox (sort of)

Since finishing up Future of Faith I’ve answered a couple of comments here and on Facebook that left me with the realization that I need to spill my guts one more time on the topic here. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what I think Cox gets wrong so let me start this off with what I think Cox gets right. First, he’s right that Western Christianity has neglected “orthopraxis” and over-emphasized “orthodoxy”. That may seem like a strange statement coming from someone who has embraced Orthodox Christianity, so let me explain. Orthopraxis, of course, means “Right practice” and, at least in America, I’ve normally heard “orthodoxy” used to mean “right belief” or “right doctrine.” Cox (rightly) opposes this emphasis of belief over practice. And I tend to agree with him when he says that we are seeing a move to emphasize practice over belief. Now, I said this is a strange thing for an Orthodox Christian to say, but its important to see how the word “Orthodoxy” is understood differently in the East than in the West. A slight digression into etymology is necessary. “Orthodoxy” is the combination of two Greek root words: ortho (ὀρθός) meaning “straight” or “correct” and doxa (δόξα). The oldest meaning of doxa is “common belief” or “popular opinion”. However, when the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew scripture in Greek in the 3rd and 2nd century BCE) was being translated, the Hebrew word for “glory” (כבוד, kavod) was translated as doxa (δόξα). This second sense of doxa is the one used in the New Testament. And it is this second sense of doxa that the word is used in Eastern Orthodox churches. In this way, when we talk about “Orthodoxy”, we’re talking about “correct glory” or “right worship” instead of “right belief”. This sense of “Orthodoxy” is closer in meaning to “orthopraxis” than the way we normally hear the word “orthodox” used in the West. For proof, you need go no farther than the “Orthodox” Presbyterian Church’s website where they have a Q&A on their use of the word “orthodoxy” in which the explicitly contrast it with the Eastern Orthodox usage of “right worship”. Now that I’ve finished my etymological digression — of which I might feel guilty had Cox not made some interesting etymological choices himself – let me return to Cox. My initial reading of Cox was frustrated by his focus on what he called the “corporate takeover of the Church”. He painted Constantine’s influence on Christianity as almost completely negative even to the point where he began to make what sounded to my ears as slanderous statements. At one point he says that the post-Constantinian church was falling over itself to claim that early Christians were loyal subjects of Cesar. Which sounds strange when you’re aware of the constant stream of martyrs who are celebrated as saints because they wouldn’t participate in the worship of Cesar as a god. This, and John Goerzen’s approach to the book as a “history of faith” made it very difficult for me to read the first half. I was arguing with Cox too much. It wasn’t until I got past the retrospective aspects of Future of Faith that I was able to see there was a lot of good in the book. Don’t get me wrong: I am well aware of the mistakes and abuses of power in the Church. However, focusing on only the failures of the early church while ignoring what it did well is the very definition of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” But this much I hope Cox is right about: that Christians will begin to emphasize right living and right worship over right belief. This doesn’t mean (as Cox supposes) that we have to become acreedal, but it does mean we give up formulating creeds. Nor does it mean (again, as Cox seems to) viewing hierarchy as a bad thing. Forming non-hierarchical churches hasn’t meant that people stopped abusing each other. In fact, an argument could be made that getting rid of hierarchy, instead of taking away the power to abuse, simply redistributes the power to abuse to everyone relatively equally. Cox’s “Future of Faith” has its failings. It’s a autobiography of Cox’s faith with some personal observations disguised as sweeping generalizations. But when he manages to get beyond his obsession with creeds and hierarchy he makes some really good points.

Still don’t get Cox’s definition of “faith”

This is only a small aside from Cox’s chapter on the Bible: “Meet Rocky, Maggie, and Barry”.  For the most part, I find this chapter fairly un-controversial — which is not to say that people aren’t going to argue with him, just that I don’t feel the need to. But the one thing I stood out was at the bottom of page 159 where he says: But here “faith” is once again debased into accepting as true something for which you have no evidence. The problem is that this is exactly how the word “faith” has been used for centuries — at least since the author of Hebrews wrote: Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen. So what Hebrews calls “faith”, Cox calls “debased”.  No wonder I’ve been struggling with The Future of Faith so much: he’s re-defining a clearly understood term and expecting everyone to play along.  I imagine I’m not the only one confused.