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

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