Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: perception (page 1 of 4)

Do we have free will?

I recently interviewed professor of neuroscience Thalia Wheatley for an episode of Talk the Talk, but at the tail end of the interview, I threw her a curveball and asked her about free will. I’ve been trying to understand this for a long time. Do we choose something, or does our brain just… do it? And if it does, what does that mean?

Here’s that part of our conversation.

Your browser does not support this audio

If you want some prep, here’s a video of Thalia with actor Alan Alda.

The rest of our interview will be appearing in an episode this August. Watch for it!

The Debunking Handbook

It doesn’t always work to debunk a myth just by presenting facts. Sometimes your careful presentation could actually entrench the wrong information. If your presentation is overly long or complicated, people may only remember the simple myth. And when you’re talking to people who are committed to the myth, your explanation may drive them further into it.

Wait — I’m doing this all wrong. I’m starting with the myth. Let me try again.

Step 1: Present the core fact.
John Cook and Stephen Lewandowsky (of UWA) have released The Debunking Handbook. All science communicators need to read it, if they want to avoid reinforcing the very myths they want to debunk.

Step 2: Give the reader an explicit warning to cue them that misinformation is coming.
One incorrect perception people sometimes have is that people change their views when facts are laid before them. This is a myth.

Step 3: Now that you’ve ripped the misinformation out of the reader’s head, fill the gap with simple, correct information.
Cook and Lewandowsky suggest a few simple ways to communicate scientific ideas clearly, and avoid psychological “backfire effects”.

That’s better. Boy, this science communication can be tricky.

h/t Lara from the “exmormon-atheists” group

Arabic not materialising on airplanes

Is there any language scarier than Arabic? (Unless you understand it, of course.) It doesn’t go in the right direction, and it looks so… foreign! No wonder it’s caused havoc before.

And when Arabic script unexpectedly appears on airplanes, well, it’s enough to make people involuntarily micturate.

Mysterious messages that appeared to be scrawled in Arabic writing on the underbellies of several Southwest Airlines jets were being investigated Wednesday by the airline and the FBI, Los Angeles radio station KNX-1070 reported.
The graffiti, which began appearing in February on 737-model planes, has been found more often in recent weeks, according to the report.
The writing appears to have been etched using a chemical process and is visible only after an auxiliary power unit is turned on.

So how do they know it’s Arabic? Gawker comes to the rescue with photos.

Where’s the Arabic? You mean those cross-looking things that look like someone wiped some dust off the plane? That’s the Arabic? Hey, wait — it looks kind of like a sword! Yeah! That’s Arabic, right? I think they have a sword on their flags.

Well, the markings are so not Arabic that even the Daily Mail has had to admit it.

The airline had suggested the symbols, which only show up with heat and are believed to be vandalism, looked like Arabic writing.

However the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. looked at the photos for MailOnline and a spokesman concluded they are ‘not Arabic script’.

It’s kind of sad: Muslims are now the most-feared group in society, just as Jews, Freemasons, and Catholics were in times past. As such, nervous people project their fears onto them. Strange markings on airplanes? Concerns over immigration? Mosque down the road? Obviously all part of a takeover attempt by Muslims.

But now, hopefully now people who work in aviation can stop being worried about Arabic script, and worry about something else, like lesbians kissing.

The Dr Fox Effect

As a lecturer, I used to worry that students would figure out how little I knew. After a while, I realised that I didn’t have to know everything, and more importantly, I probably knew ‘enough’ to be capable at my level. Now I’m quite relaxed about knowing hardly anything, as long as I keep reading and discussing things with people who know more than I do.

But this clip terrified me all over again. It’s about the ‘Dr Fox Effect‘, and it describes how an engaging lecturer can give students the impression that they’ve learned something, even when the presentation was content-free. In this clip, professors think they’re getting a lecture on game theory from an expert, when they’re really listening to complete gibberish from an actor.

Now I wonder: In a lecture, do I give students something real and useful? Or are students happy with my lectures because I’m ‘entertaining’, while getting nothing of real value?

This is really a little bit scary.

h/t/ weird experiments

Three Card Monte

Everybody knows not to play Three Card Monte, right? It’s an old scam that relies on a little sleight of hand and a lot of psychology.


It’s not just one operator, but a whole team, including confederates who make winning look easy, and blockers who separate you from your more sensible friends. And if you do manage to pick the Ace, a shill will bet more on the wrong card so the dealer will take their fake bet instead. There will even be some ‘muscle’ on hand to give you a few broken ribs if you make trouble.

It’s fascinating to watch, but it’s a dangerous game, and you always lose. Don’t play.

Who likes Benny Lava?

Starting out with “Who likes white people?” seemed a little out there, even for Michele Bachmann.

Language Log has done a convincing job of demonstrating that she really said, “Who likes wet people?”, which you can prove to yourself by closing your eyes and listening. You know what it is — it’s those damn subtitles (or are they supertitles?). When you see the words up there, it sure sounds like “white”, even when you know it’s “wet”.

I like this as an example of the suggestibility of perception. Could this be the Benny Lava of American politics?

No, maybe not.

Inappropriate brand identificaton

There’s enjoyment and there’s investment.

Let’s take the band Gomez for an example. I noticed the other day that I have a lot of Gomez albums, and I like them, but I wouldn’t call myself a Gomez fan. There’s some level at which I haven’t identified with them.

On the other hand, when I first heard the Leisure Society or Seabear, it was more than just liking their stuff. I connected with them in some way that made me say “I can get behind this.” I reserved a tiny part of myself for them, and made them a part of my social identity (because listening to music is as much about social alignment as musical enjoyment).

But defining yourself in terms of musical taste might not be such a great idea. What happens if ‘your special band’ releases a disappointing second album (as the Leisure Society and Seabear both did)? Will you be able to update, or will that be too threatening to your self-image? Maybe you’ll just never listen to the new stuff, and keep thinking they’re great.

What I’m talking about is the perils of Fanboi Syndrome, and it’s the topic of this study (thanks to Kuri). Except this is about brands, not bands.

You may think you’re defending your favorite platform because it’s just that good. But, according to a recently published study out of the University of Illinois, you may instead be defending yourself because you view criticisms of your favorite brand as a threat to your self image. The study, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, examines the strength of consumer-brand relationships, concluding that those who have more knowledge of and experience with a brand are more personally impacted by incidents of brand “failure.”

The researchers performed two experiments, one on a group of 30 women and another on 170 undergraduate students, in order to see whether the subjects’ self esteem was tied to the general ratings of various brands. Those who had high self-brand connections (SBC)—that is, those who follow, research, or simply like a certain brand—were the ones whose self esteem suffered the most when their brands didn’t do well or were criticized. Those with low SBC remained virtually unaffected on a personal level.

Boy, do I hear this. I used to be an Apple fanboi. Well, I still kind of am, partly because I think their stuff is good, and partly because of the thousands of happy hours I’ve spent computing on the MacOS. But a little tiny part of me is heavily invested in Apple, to the extent that I have to try not to feel personally affronted if AppleHaterz bag it, and I’m likely to write off their opinion.

I used to be worse. You should have seen me in the 90s, when the Mac was an endangered species. But brand identification is something of a danger. It’s one more kind of bias that keeps us from seeing clearly. Companies shouldn’t have that kind of hold.

Lectures on Doubt: What faith is

I once described faith as “the willingness to suspend critical reasoning facilities in the service of a belief for which there is no adequate evidence”. Not everyone likes this definition (strangely), so I thought I’d return to the topic of faith and refine it a bit.

You might think it’s strange for an atheist to talk about faith in the first place. Perhaps you’d say I couldn’t give it a fair treatment, since I don’t have any. Which is a typical faith-y thing to say: you don’t really understand faith (or you’re not qualified to speak about it) unless you’ve fallen for it completely. You have to take the leap, and then you’ll get it. However, if ‘faith’ means ‘fooling yourself’, then a person of faith would be the worst person to ask about it. Anyway, humour me. Treat me as a somewhat objective observer. Have a little faith.

On the other hand, you may take exception to my claim that I don’t have any faith. Of course I do, you might say. It takes faith to do anything! It takes faith to be an atheist, I’ve been told. My Uncle Richard used to say that it takes faith to believe that the floor will be there when you get out of bed in the morning. It takes faith for scientists to study a cure for cancer, since they don’t know that they’ll be successful. It takes faith to believe in, say, evolution. So I’ve been told.

I don’t believe it. When people use this reasoning, they’re stretching the definition of faith to encompass everything, which intrudes on other concepts that we already have words for. Defining ‘faith’ this way makes the word meaningless.

The key insight to what faith is hinges on an understanding of its relationship to evidence, and it’s this: If you have evidence for something, you do not need faith in that thing. You just need to open your eyes. For this reason, I describe faith as belief without evidence.

The Book of Mormon agrees fairly well with this assessment. (It’s not a source I think much of, but some people do.) It says that once you know something, your faith becomes dormant.

32:17 Yea, there are many who do say: If thou wilt show unto us a sign from heaven, then we shall know of a surety; then we shall believe.

32:18 Now I ask, is this faith? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.

Faith is only necessary in the absence of knowledge, according to this author. I’d agree. Insofar as evidence brings you knowledge of a thing, there is no need for faith in that thing where there is evidence for it.

So with that in mind, let’s go back to those who think that everything requires faith. Does it require faith to put your feet on the floor, believing it will be there? No. I have a lot of evidence that the floor has been there on previous mornings, and I can infer with some degree of certainty that this morning will be like other mornings. There’s a very high probability that the floor will be there, based on the evidence. (If tomorrow morning I turn out to be wrong and fall through the floor, I’ll update accordingly.) I may have a ‘belief’ that the floor will be there, but ‘belief’ is not the same as ‘faith’. I have a ‘belief’ that I am sitting at a computer writing this, but since this belief is well in evidence, I don’t need to exercise any faith in it.

Does a scientist need faith to work on a cure for cancer? No. A scientist may have a reasonable expectation of success, based on (again) evidence, but this is not the same as ‘faith’. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to describe this situation as ordinary ‘reasoning under uncertainty’, the kind we engage in every day. Or perhaps ‘hope’.

Do we need to have faith in scientific theories, like evolution? Not at all. You can ask a scientist what evidence led them to that conclusion, and they can tell you. Even better, you can replicate those results yourself, given time, equipment, and expertise. Of course, I haven’t actually replicated many scientific results myself. Do I therefore have faith in the scientists? No. It’s true that scientists typically function in what could be called a climate of ‘trust’, but this is optional. People in science can review each others’ results — no faith required.

What happens in faith is something like this: You don’t have evidence for something, but you wish it were true, so your faith makes up the difference and allows you to keep believing. It’s not knowing something, but believing it anyway. In other words, it’s wishful thinking.

Things that you have faith in may not always turn out to be wrong, but they’re likely to be, since it’s kind of hard to get things right. To get something right, you have to observe, generate ideas about what’s happening, control the natural tendency to see what we want to see, and figure out what it would take to prove your idea wrong. Even after you’ve gotten it mostly right, your idea might need to be refined, or overturned entirely if the evidence demands. That’s the cost of making reality your guide. But if you have faith, and you are unmoored from reality, you just keep believing whatever you want! Isn’t that easy?

Well, no. Having faith is not easy, especially when contrary evidence is staring you in the face. That’s when it takes a lot of tenacity to hold on to faith by sheer force of will. I can see why people would consider it a virtue, since it does take a lot of effort. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people speak of ‘exercising’ faith.

But rather than exercise faith in things for which we lack adequate evidence, how much better it would be to find out the facts, and when facts are scarce, to keep an open mind. Faith needs to be thrown out, and where possible, to be replaced with knowledge.

If you attack the Church, you are attacking me.

Many times, when I make criticisms of religion (or a religion), various practitioners take it personally and say that I’m attacking them.

My answer is: No, I’m not attacking you; I’m attacking your church. If you can’t tell the difference between your church and yourself, then you have made a serious mistake. What that means is that you are identifying too closely with the organisation. You have conflated your goals, your future, and your identity with those of the group. You need to fix this. It’s not healthy to confuse your own identity with other things that are not you. (It is understandable that high-commitment religions are slow to correct this tendency. It works overwhelmingly to their advantage.)

Many religious folks are able to differentiate, and I quite enjoy talking to them. Many thanks if you’re one of these. I have a harder time with the internalisers. I’ve just had an multi-day online discussion where I started with this notion:

Churches are (among other things) safe places for weak ideas. They’re like shelters for ideas that can’t defend themselves.

I thought this was an interesting idea. I’d always considered that ideas keep religions going, but this was the opposite — the idea that churches exist as social life-support systems for their ideas — and it hinted at a commensal relationship. I was hoping for a bit of discussion on the topic. Oh, that it were possible.

It didn’t take long before a believer insisted that I was just ‘having a go’ at religion and that I was implying that all religious people were ‘weak-minded fools’. I don’t think this, but if someone wanted evidence to the contrary, it was not to be found from his comments. He insisted (without evidence) that angels and demons were real, that science ‘didn’t know everything’, and that his ‘feelings of the Spirit’ were different from ordinary feelings, and ought to be evidence enough for anyone. Moreover, he was unwilling to consider that his subjective feelings might be in error. All of this was couched in the most tormented reasoning; over the course of 200 comments, he committed the bandwagon fallacy, special pleading, and terminal logorrhea. Well, that’s not a fallacy, but ad hominem attacks are; he surmised that I must be a terrible partner if I needed evidence for everything. Not to mention the argument from ignorance — what proof did I have that God didn’t exist? In short, all the devices, defense mechanisms, and poor reasoning that has kept him (and will keep him forever) anchored to his faith. And he managed all this while misreading my initial premise. If he wanted to demonstrate that religious believers were not weak-minded fools, he could have done a better job than he did.

I am not, by nature, a poker of hives. I dissect poor ideas unsparingly, but I try to go easy on actual people (previous paragraph excepted). I don’t expect believers to like it. But there needs to be a way to say “I think you’ve got this wrong”.

So if I criticise a religion, what reaction would I expect its members to have? That depends.

  • If I’m right, accept it, and move on with a determination to do better.
  • If I’m wrong, please tell me. But in the process, don’t make me right.

Scary logos, explained

Have corporate logos ever raised tremors for you? You’ll know what I mean if your sedate suburban childhood was marred by them. There we were, innocently watching afternoon television, and then at the end of a show, there would be a seven-second bumper clip showing the name of the production company. They were often done on a Scanimate, which was kind of a precursor to modern CG animation.

And these clips freaked a lot of kids out. Here’s the most infamous — the Screen Gems logo, also known as ‘The S from Hell’.

The Viacom ‘V of Doom’ clip has stained its share of sheets (even getting sent up in Family Guy).

Look out — here it comes!

And the Paramount clip. This one was known as the ‘Closet Killer’ version because of the music.

Seriously, what sort of maniac would unleash this evil so indiscriminately upon an uncomprehending television audience?

Inevitably, in online discussions about scary logos, someone will say “I don’t get it! Why do people find these scary? I don’t find these even mildly creepy!” Well, no, you don’t, you thirty-plus well-adjusted adult. But perhaps if you were instead a person of a certain age and a certain disposition, things would be different. So, as a formerly timorous child, I am going to try and explain why scary logos can be scary.

I should point out that my childhood was for the most part happy and secure, and I was not overly neurotic. But there were some parts of my house, especially one part of the downstairs hallway which, in the dark of night, would require a little steeling of the will before hurriedly passing by.

My house had a garage, with a back door that opened to the outside. To get in, I would have to open the door, reach into the musty blackness, and turn on the light. I could never reach for the light switch without imagining someone with a large axe chopping my hand off. For some irrational reason, I associated this image with the song “Judy in Disguise With Glasses”, which my sister used to listen to. It’s a great song, but it has a sickly sitar ending that seemed, to a child about to go into a dark garage, to be highly suggestive of the stump of a wrist, dripping blood.

These memories are among the most vivid of my childhood, even as I’m aware they make no sense to others — people who have never felt nightfear, or who had actual scary things to cope with in their childhood without making up silly things to frighten themselves with.

Childhood is a frightening and vulnerable time. The line between the real and the imaginary, the threatening and the comforting, is not fixed. Big people are kind and solicitous mostly, but they can shout or act unpredictably, and they are very big and complicated. Knowledge is power, and a child, having naturally less knowledge, is powerless even in a home where they are provided and cared for. And as memory and cognition develops, we experience an emerging consciousness. Maybe in the process of turning the cascade of input we get into the knowledge we’re going to have, some information gets processed the wrong way, like swallowing some water the wrong way, and it turns into a coil of tentacle instead of a flower in a garden. A shirt draped over a chair in a dark room takes on the appearance of lurking. You are awakened by dreams that turn on you.

And sometimes in bed, in the dark of night, the desire to get up for a drink would be subdued by the possibility that something would grab an ankle, if an ankle were to venture out. Or not even that specific — that under the blankets, one was safe, but that by projecting an arm out from under the covers, one was venturing into some unknown, and it would be best to stay covered. And in this suggestible state, the soundtrack in one’s mind is all the tumult of noise from the day before, including — possibly — a thunderous seven-second fanfare from earlier in the afternoon.

For me, this is the one that kept me pinned in bed.

If you’ve forgotten the vulnerability of childhood, you may not understand how these attention-catching production clips can miss, and catch the breath instead. But if you’re someone who still closes the closet doors tightly at night to make sure the things inside stay inside, then you will understand, and perhaps even nurture, this liminal territory of childish anxiety.

Older posts

© 2017 Good Reason

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑