Friday, August 31, 2012

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Perspective change

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! - Shakespeare's Hamlet
Hamlet couldn't have been more wrong. Exaggerated statements and The Dunning-Kruger syndrome are some reasons for my change in perspective over the past decade. As this TED talk shows, humans are not much more than monkeys with some additional bells and whistles. In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins relates a story to illustrate a change in perspective:
Colin Turnbull (1961) took a pygmy friend, Kenge, out of the forest for the first time in his life, and they climbed a mountain together and looked out over the plains. Kenge saw some buffalo ‘grazing lazily several miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said. “What insects are those?”.... At first I hardly understood, then I realised that in the forest vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here in the plains, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grasslands, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison.... When I told Kenge that the insects were buffalo, he roared with laughter and told me not to tell such stupid lies...’
Some examples of ideas that have helped me see the buffalo are:
  1. 'Brain droppings' by Neil degrass Tyson
  2. TED talk by Ben Goldacre
  3. Dan Ariely on human irrationality
  4. The banned TED talk
  5. V.S. Ramachandran on quirks of the brain
  6. A.C. Grayling on his latest book
  7. An athiest's call to arms
  8. Sam Harris on free will
While being sceptical, it is important not to become cynical. (But this is a fun site.) I saw a quote by Carl Sagan about the need for a judicious mix of skepticism and the need for keeping an open mind:
"It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas...If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you … On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones." -Carl Sagan, The Burden of Skepticism

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dunning-Kruger Syndrome

I have written about Dunning-Kruger syndrome a couple of times earlier. I think I am a fairly well read person but I hesitate to make definitive comments about most issues because I feel that I am woefully uninformed about many things. I was relieved to find that I was not alone in getting this feeling. In The Denial of Death, Andreas Becker writes:
I remember one of my college professors - a man very much admired as a teacher of medieval history - confessing that the more he learned about the period the less he was prepared to say: the epoch was so complex, so diversified that no general statement could safely be made about it.
I used to literally fall off my wheelchair  when I used to hear people who I thought were not well acquainted with a subject making supremely confident statements about it. I have received many of the most sweeping and confident prognoses of my condition from people who have no connection with the medical profession.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I have to give binary yes/no answers and most questions cannot be answered this way. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth. My mode of communication ensures generation of distorted truths.

In the first couple of years after my stroke, when I was more naive, I used to make various 'gotcha' statements thinking that I will show everyone how smart I am.But of course I had zero impact. In Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, while trying to convince Florence Craye about something, Bertie Wooster muses:
Once more I had that sense of not making progress. Her face, I observed, was cold and hard, like my kipper, which of course during these exchanges I had been neglecting, and I began to understand how these birds in Holy Writ must have felt after their session with the deaf adder.  I can't recall all the details, though at my private school I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge, but I remember that they had the dickens of an uphill job trying to charm it, and after they had sweated themselves to a frazzle no business resulted. It is often this way, I believe, with deaf adders.
If you have an argument with these people you get the distinct impression that you are in conversation with the afore-mentioned deaf adder. (I could do with an 'anger room' but how do I use it?) I gradually realised that my best option was to adopt a sphinx-like demeanour with a broad smile (at least I hoped it was a smile).  It is said that speech is silvern but silence is golden. They get plenty of that golden stuff from me. This saved me lot of time and effort.

(According to this TED talk, Jeeves' mantra of studying the psychology of the individual often pays dividends. I heard another story about Kemal Ataturk, the strongman of Turkey. He wanted to discourage the wearing of veils but he adopted a different strategy to that of Nicholas Sarkozy - he made it compulsory for all prostitutes to wear veils.)

But this tactic of keeping mum does put me on a sticky wicket. If I  keep a glum face, it might be perceived as rude. But since I find it difficult to smile, I will try to induce laughter but I must be careful not to overdo it otherwise people will think that I am wildly enthusiastic about their ideas. (I only need to worry about the first and last sentences of this cartoon.)

t think I did not notice this syndrome before my stroke because the educational institutions that I had been to meant that I was generally in the company of people whose average IQ would be higher than that of the population as a whole. You can't get big-headed when you are surrounded by people with brains the size of planets, people who  were likely to discuss Black-Sholes equation over breakfast.I had unconsciously and erroneously imbibed the idea that the wider population will be similar. In other words I was in an ivory tower getting psyched by integral calculus and maximizing objective functions.

With so much brain power around me, it was perhaps not surprising that I had occasional bouts of the Impostor Syndrome.I didn't know till a couple of years ago that there was a name for this type of fear and that it is more widespread than I had imagined.

Ever since I came to know about this phenomenon, I started seeing it everywhere. An internationally well-known case is that of Joe the plumber. I think it is a key problem with denialists of all hues. I don't read much about the science of climate change because the subject is huge  and I don't have the  time for it. Sometimes I see  a denialist article and start reading it to see what the controversy  was all about. Very often I realise that the writer doesn't know the difference between weather and climate so I see no point in proceeding further. It is improbable that lots of very smart people who have spent decades studying an issue will make the simple errors that denialists point out. (Te best cartoon about climate change that I saw was in this TED talk.)

We should all be careful of this arrogance of ignorance.We are most confident about areas that are not our specialized fields because we are not aware of the complexities that might arise in them and we might end up describing a spherical cow. Creationists seem to have PhDs in every field except evolutionary biology. (It is stunning that Dawkins is asked to waste his time on debates like this. )

Contrary to what I was told earlier, I am now more wary of taking seriously people who appear too confident about complex issues. Politicians and religious  leaders immediately spring to mind.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Indiscriminate knowledge

In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi talks of a contrast 'which is inherent in the human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust.' It is hoped that education will suppress the Mr. Hyde in us and allow our Dr. Jekyll part to flourish. But occasionally the devil gets out to the shock and bewilderment of everyone. Such is the case with the recent Colorado shooting where the suspect is said to be a brilliant science student.

Many educated people seem to do incomprehensible things. Mohammad Atta, the leader of the gang that flew a plane into the WTC in NewYork, was an engineer. Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda is a medical doctor. I read about a person employed in Google and earning a lakh of rupees a month who was arrested on terrorism charges.

The more science learns about the brain the more complicated it becomes. In a course on Human Behavioural Biology at Stanford University conducted by Robert Sapolsky, there is a session on individual differences where various brain malfunctions are discussed resulting in people doing bizarre things bringing into question the concept of free will (unless you are a believer).

Compared to other areas of the world, the US seems to have more of the wackos who suddenly shoot people to alleviate their existential angst. I suppose it has something to do with the environment. After all much behaviour is a result of interaction between genes and the environment. In The Trouble with Testosterone, while discussing the case of the Unabomber, Sapolsky concludes with a nice story:
There is a wonderful Russian story that takes place at the gates of heaven, where the newly arrived are judged.  A dead murderer is on trail, fresh from earth where he was shot by the police after his umpteenth murder, the strangling of an elderly woman for her money.  A panel of deceased judges sits in session. And where does God fit on the scene? Not as a judge, but as a required character witness. At some point in the proceedings, he shambles in, sits in a magisterial decrepitude born of the weight of infinite knowledge, and in a maundering, avuncular way, does his best to defend and explain the man - "He was always kind to animals. He was very upset when he lost his favorite top when he was a small boy." ("My red top, you know about my red top!?!" The murderer leaps up, suddenly awash in a torrent of memory. "Of course I do. It rolled down the storm drain on Zlonty Street. It's still down there," God answers with complete affectless knowing.) Finally, the judges tire of God, who is in fact tiresome in his knowledge and forgiveness, and coax him off the stand.
When science brings us something new and startling, when there is a breakthrough that opens new vistas, there is often talk about us acquiring godlike knowledge, and the tacit assumption is that this is a good thing, But the God of this parable is useless, has been shunted aside by the indiscriminateness of his knowledge. Knowledge, familiarity, understanding, must not ever lead us to a detached indiscriminateness. The danger of Olympian knowledge is that you then look down on things from an Olympian height, and from that telescoped distance, things seem equivalent - like a lost red top and a strangled woman, or perhaps an awkward adolescence that produces an awkward adult and an awkward adolescence that produces a murderous one.
But there is a difference.