Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The science behind denial of obvious evidence

with 30 comments

Almost everyone has some resistance to accepting evidence of facts contrary to their beliefs—and that makes sense. Before undertaking a drastic revision of the structure of one’s beliefs, one wants to be sure that the evidence presented in true and the arguments based on the evidence are sound. But some (cf. climate change denialists, evolution deniers, and the like) go beyond all reasonable bounds. Why?

I have occasionally recommended Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Vital Lies, Simple Truths that discusses this phenomenon in various contexts, and now Chris Mooney has an excellent article on the topic in Mother Jones: He begins:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger (PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers—the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, . . .

Continue reading. Alison Lurie wrote a wonderful novel, Imaginary Friends, inspired by the study. Recommended.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 8:07 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

30 Responses

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  1. The one thing the article fails to mention is that the Scientific Method is only one form of epistemology (how we know something to be true). It is a wonderful method for anything of a factual nature, especially since it is based on a consensus of externally observable events that can be counted and validated.

    On the other hand, human beings have a well-developed intuitive sense that has been honed over millennia of evolution and survival. This intuitive sense often operates in the “spaces” between the words and facts, and taps into a primordial consciousness that many believe connects us with the universal life-force (God, the Tao, call it what you will).

    The scientific mind will always demean this type of “knowledge” as invalid, but it is in fact, only invalid within the paradigm of the Scientific Method. The belief that the SM is the only way of knowing the Universe is itself a delusion filled with egotistical hubris (Scientism). Of course, Scientism will rationalize way intuition as a function of neurotransmitters and brain structure as if there can be nothing else.

    The trick, I believe, lies in being able to distinguish which epistemological approach is appropriate to which situation. When it comes to global warming, the harmful effects of cigarettes, or designing the airplane I’m going to fly in, I’ll take the Scientific Method.

    When it comes to choosing a spouse, e.g., I’d rather let my intuitive sense do the work rather than rely on a detailed analysis of risks and benefits.

    I can’t remember who wrote this but it goes (more or less) as follows: “Science can tell us what is, but not if it should be”.


    25 April 2011 at 9:39 am

  2. It shows up in poker: the player who uses only the science of statistics will probably in the long run lose to the player who reads people well.

    But science is extremely curious, and psychology (the very science on which the article is based) does a lot of study to determine why some people make good choices and some people make bad choices—and they are making progress in those areas. I would not wish to prematurely draw boundaries that demarcate areas susceptible to the scientific method from areas in which science can tell us nothing. Those latter areas continually shrink.

    Take a look.


    25 April 2011 at 9:49 am

  3. There was a classic line from Jurassic Park saying something like just because we can doesn’t mean we should…nature has a way…

    Maria Luisa

    25 April 2011 at 5:47 pm

  4. LOL, I liked all the sites on choosing a mate! With so much science working on the topic, I’m amazed that the divorce rate is so high and that E-Harmony and other “scientific” mating sites not more successful.

    Are you trying to prove my point for me????? Hahahahahaha.


    25 April 2011 at 6:46 pm

  5. No, no: you’re thinking of engineering. I’m talking about psychology: the science of mate selection—i.e., the desire to know, to understand. The point of study is to understand the process and how it works.

    Whether a long-term union is successful is a completely different question, and of course depends on the definition of “successful”. I am sure that this also is an area under study, but in science (as I understand it) the desire is to understand, to know. Working on applications is more a matter of engineering.


    25 April 2011 at 7:10 pm

  6. There are many paths to the same truths. Science is one of them. It can and has been applied to human consciousness, with relatively little success. Of course with consciousness the question always remains, how well can the thing know itself given that it is limited in its capacity to understand by the very way it is designed. Can a worm understand itself? Up to a point perhaps, but it lacks the intellectual tools to look far enough outside itself.

    As a classically trained scientist and psychologist, I understand the limitations of Science and have learned not to necessarily be constrained by the limitations of the Scientific Method in trying to “know”.

    It’s like the classical polarization between Behaviorism and Phenomenology; a battle that has raged since the days of B.F. Skinner. I was trained as a Behaviorist. In Behaviorism, only behavior that can be communally observed and measured, matters or exists, i.e. it is Scientific. A great tool for dealing, for example, with simple behaviors such as nail-biting where we can use operant conditioning with rewards and punishments to “train” out the behavior. Fails miserably when dealing with complex human emotions and experiences.

    Phenomenology on the other hand accepts that what you are experiencing internally is valid, even though it can’t be observed and usually only very poorly measured. But it exists (to you).

    To insist that the SM is the only valid way to know is very limiting. It completely dismisses most of the rich human experiences as “misfiring of neurons” simply because it can’t observably access them. Hubris and insanity.

    A hundred and fifty years ago, what we now call Quantum Physics, was dismissed as the rantings of lunatics by the scientific community for precisely the same reasons as much of human experience is dismissed today…inaccessibility. Even today, most Quantum Physics is purely speculative fantasy backed up by the scratching of electrons on film in high-speed accelerators. Very theoretical, but it bears the stamp of Scientism and is therefore legitimate.

    But when it comes to human consciousness, we are so very quick to dismiss things we don’t understand under the scientific mantle as “nonsense’. Now that’s insanity!


    26 April 2011 at 4:10 am

  7. I suppose to some extent it’s a matter of deciding individually when we feel we “know” something. Some explanations that are satisfying to some seem lacking to others, and that is as true for scientific explanations as for any other: one reason that science continually extends its reach is that scientists themselves are not fully satisfied with the explanations they have.

    I haven’t heard quantum physics described before as speculative fantasy, but I think I see what you mean. I must point out that this is a very precise fantasy indeed, one that allows practitioners to make extremely specific predictions of outcomes and, when the things are tried, the predictions are borne out by what happens. This is at the very least an unusual fantasy, much better than many other fantasies (e.g., witchcraft) that boast many adherents.

    I like fantasies that support accurate, real-world predictions and do not depend on a particular individual for their functioning.


    26 April 2011 at 6:13 am

  8. BTW, I am very interested to learn more about other ways of “knowing” or “explaining”. Some, though quite important, are difficult to transmit in words or equations—the taste of vinegar, for example. We “know” that by tasting vinegar, and that’s pretty much how we have to teach it. The same with “knowing” a piano piece, in the sense of being able to play it. These are modes of knowledge that are not attributable to science.

    But more complex bodies of knowledge exist that are not “scientific”: law, for example. A practitioner of law must “know” the law, and that (I think) implies not merely knowing the content of the statues, rules, and regulations, and the specific processes used in law (treatment of evidence and suspects, procedures used in court, best ways to choose a jury, making effective use of challenges, and so on), but also having the judgment, derived from experience, to apply the knowledge effectively in specific instances.

    Now that kind of knowing is not “scientific”, as we usually understand it, though it certainly borrows some basic tools from the scientific workbox (which is stocked from the array of tools humans developed over the ages)—things like learning by experiment (e.g., posing a question in the form of doing something, the answer being what then happens), either one’s own or experiments done by others.

    That’s a crude example of a basic scientific tool: looking to experience/reality to determine an answer, rather than looking to ancient writings, present-day clouds, or the entrails of birds.

    Of course, scientists measure a lot—they like an objective way to determine differences, a way that allows them to describe differences in the same way that someone else, measuring the same objects, would describe the same differences. I’m trying to think of a field of knowledge in which measurements are not used and would be inappropriate. Certainly we use LOTS of measurements in the field of law—that is, for example, how we know that the US is the nation that imprisons a higher proportion of its citizens than any other nation in the world, and when we talk about Americans being “free”, we know to what degree that is true. 🙂

    When you talk about the areas of knowledge that lie beyond the purview of science, are you talking about poetry, drama, philosophy, music, and literature? It is indeed intriguing to consider those as reports of outcomes from investigations, and I certainly fully appreciate and enjoy them. I don’t see how those modes of knowledge conflict with science, but I do see how scientists could (and have) become quite interested in understanding more about those modes of knowing.

    I guess I really don’t see the kind of conflict between the scientific method and the things I’ve described here. Knowledge in the scientific sense is quite wonderful, but has anyone ever claimed that scientific knowledge is the only real knowledge? That is, made the claim in the context of considering how we know other things, like when a crepe is done and how to play the banjo and the way we look at something after reading a good poem about it. Those all seem to be very good ways of knowing, and the scientific way of knowing seems pre-eminent in its domain, which it constantly extends by building on what it has done.

    Help me out here with some examples and references.


    26 April 2011 at 6:42 am

  9. Aha. I figured out what was bothering me. Many nowadays attempt to reach a scientific conclusion (regarding, for example, climate change, evolution, vaccination) by using something other than the scientific method. That seems like an error to me. Given that there are indeed other ways of knowing, scientific conclusions still must be reached by scientific methods, I believe.

    I’m thinking of arguments such as this one by Ken Hutcherson, quoted by Ed Brayton:

    History has taught us one thing, and that is that the only thing we have learned from history is that we don’t learn from history. The Babylonian empire failed, the Persian Empire failed, the Greek Empire failed, and the Roman Empire was dispersed when the people failed to remember what made them great. The common denominator for the failure of all these world powers was the breakdown of the family. We, the United States of America, are the last world power to date, and the same will happen to us if we do not protect the family. How does the family fail? It is the breakdown of marriage.

    It seems to me that a bit of the scientific method (and logic, another tool in many epistemological toolkits) would have helped Hutcherson avoid making a fool of himself.


    26 April 2011 at 7:14 am

  10. It’s interesting that you brought up poetry, music, and literature. They aren’t really alternate ways of knowing, although the first two certainly tap into those areas of the mind (conscious and unconscious) that are able to “know” alternately.

    It is a common belief of Cartesian societies that all ways of knowing are word-based. But within the great spiritual traditions that span thousands of years of lived and shared experience there is a vast body of knowledge around “wordless” knowing; knowing from within the spaces between the words.

    We believe that what truly separates human from other animals is the use of complex language to manipulate our environment. The vast majority of us, especially in the West, are very much “in our minds” as my psychotherapy supervisor used to say, i.e. we live in the world of words and talk to ourselves ceaselessly.

    But while words are wonderful “tools” for practical purposes, they are essentially also illusory; naming a tree a “tree” doesn’t make it something different from what it is; we simply give it a word so that we can describe it’s common charaectiristics to others. If we called a tree a football, it would not make it any different from what it actually is. Not sure if you get me.

    But there are well established traditions for knowing the world wordlessly. We see these traditions within both Western and Eastern meditative disciplines where the goal is to completely still the mind and suppress the words in order to experience the “spaces between the words” and make those spaces long enough so that we may perceive ultimate reality and the interconnectedness of all things (very Quantum Physics, matter=energy and energy=matter).

    Words are the foundation of both Science and the Ego. The Ego is another thing that we have that appears to be unique to humans vs. other animals. Te Ego is a powerful survival mechanism; it doesn’t want its share of the pie, it wants the whole pie – to Hell with you. The Ego is very much a psycho-evolutionary tool; it seeks the survival of the fittest and best Ego. But the Ego is largely also at the root of our modern catastrophe of greed and deceit that leads to wars and environmental destruction.

    So, words have their place, as does Science; but these are not the best methods for personally experiencing ultimate reality. If you are interested, two books that have been very enlightening to me have been, The Tao Te Ching (I personally like the Witter Bynner translation, although it’s very hard to find), and The Power of Now by Tolle, who does an excellent job of distilling thousands of years of human experience into a very accessible explanation.

    Don’t get me wrong; I love Science. But each aspect of human life has appropriate tools for “understanding”.


    26 April 2011 at 9:19 am

  11. How do you establish whether or not a given mode is a way of knowing or not? You casually dismiss music, literature, and poetry as modes of knowledge, but I was not able to follow the details. In my mind, these are very much modes of knowledge, and I would be extremely interested in your demonstration that they are not.

    Wordless knowledge is common. Most of my cooking is taste-based and totally wordless. I know the names for the viands and processes, but that is a low sort of knowledge. Cookery itself is almost completely involved with wordless knowledge: selecting the foods, preparing them and tasting, presenting them attractively: all those things can be (and often are) learned and done without words.

    Knowing a particular piece on the banjo does not involve words, but it certainly involves knowledge—easily tested by handing a banjo to a non-player and asking for a piece to be played.

    I don’t see wordless knowledge as particularly special, though it certainly is common, useful, and even essential. And even wordless knowledge uses some tools in common with science (and other areas of knowledge): for example, deliberately gaining some experience for use: “What would lemon juice add?” is the (wordless) thought, and the answer is sought through adding lemon juice. Knowledge gained from experiment and experience and filed for later use.

    I do understand that words are arbitrary signifiers—indeed, I’m in it up to my hips, in learning Spanish. Would you believe that they have gone to the trouble of making an entirely different set of signifiers? I have to learn them all, while reality runs along unchanged—except, of course, “reality” includes the fact that there are languages, with such and such specific (and time-dependent) characteristics.

    Indeed, are you calling our thoughts “unreal”? They really are thoughts, and we really have them, and they reflect if not determine our actions. Certainly we have a strong sense that in picking an action we use these things that you don’t think are “real”, yet we encounter them daily.

    Obviously thoughts have a different sort of reality than rocks, for example, and rocks in turn have a different sort of reality than (say) a cat. The cat moves about, does things of its own volition (so far as we can tell); it is born, lives, and dies: it’s quite temporary. If you analyze it into its component atoms and forces, you don’t find “cat,” yet we commonly accept that the cat is “real”, just “real” in a way different from rocks and thoughts and quantum theory. But they are all “real” in that we can encounter and recognize them.

    I certainly see it as curious that what you call a fantasy matches up so closely with what I think everyone would call reality: the external world. Clarence R. Wylie, Jr., had a similar experience in the odd match between reality and mathematics, another human creation that exists only in our minds. He wrote this sonnet:


    Not truth, nor certainty. These I forswore
    In my novitiate, as young men called
    To holy orders must abjure the world.
    ‘If . . . , then . . . ,’ this only I assert;
    And my successes are but pretty chains
    Linking twin doubts, for it is vain to ask
    If what I postulate be justified,
    Or what I prove possess the stamp of fact.

    Yet bridges stand, and men no longer crawl
    In two dimensions. And such triumphs stem
    In no small measure from the power this game,
    Played with the thrice-attenuated shades
    Of things, has over their originals.
    How frail the wand, but how profound the spell!

    The mystical disciplines you mention also are interesting, though whether what they deliver matches quantum theory is open. The problem with mysticism is that it delivers only experience: no predictions, no knowledge that can be transmitted to another. It’s the taste of vinegar writ large, so far as I can. An intense and satisfying experience, but isolated within one individual. Most forms of knowledge—even wordless ones—have more of a community effect: science, music, cookery, drama, law: they all involve other people.


    26 April 2011 at 10:06 am

  12. I didn’t intend to imply that poetry, music, etc., aren’t very significant; simply that they are signposts to wordless knowledge rather than knowledge itself. And what you describe as wordless, e.g cooking, or tastes, etc., usually run parallel to words, i.e. we still talk to ourselves constantly, even if we are unaware of it.

    My Mom had a massive stroke in Wernick’s area of the brain. She lost the ability to create thoughts and became immediately incapable of navigating through reality (as opposed to the more common type of stroke in Broca’s area, whereby people can “think” but can’t express their thoughts properly verbally).

    SO in fact, word-thought is critical to our every act, even if we think that we are thinking wordlessly. For example, when you awake in the middle of the night to go to the washroom, still groggy and half-asleep, you may think that you actually go to the bathroom without thinking. But actually, you are using words almost subliminally to guide your every movement….”slippers, watch wall it’s dark, seat down, seat up, wash hands”, etc. This happens at a level of virtual unawareness because it is so seamless.

    Someone with a Wernicke’s Aphasia can’t even get out of bed, even if they are in fact completely capable of doing so; they can’t organize their thoughts to even bring a glass of water to their lips. It is a form of torture you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

    But she still exists. She is alive. She experiences the world but in a very different way.

    “The problem with mysticism is that it delivers only experience”. O.K., and what’s wrong with that? Not everything has to be measurable or even useful to anyone else. One might well argue that experience is all there is. Others would also argue that life lived without access to Universal experience is truly meaningless. When we die, the world dies with us.


    26 April 2011 at 12:25 pm

  13. Well, what’s wrong with an area of knowledge that delivers only experience should, I think, be obvious: it’s extremely difficult to share.

    I’ve looked back through the comment thread and I haven’t found where anyone has taken the position that everything has to be measurable—indeed, that position is, I think, obviously wrong, and I believe some of my examples were of nonmeasurable experiences—reading poetry, listening to music, playing the banjo. I suppose one could adduce measurements, but they are quite peripheral.

    And many of my pleasures are useful to no one but me. Again: that notion was never expressed.

    I feel as though my position is being mistaken for some other position that you’ve encountered. Just for the record:

    1. Not everything is measurable: the pleasurable sensations of a fine meal or a good conversation or a great poem are not measurable in any real sense, though they are valued.

    2. Not everything is useful to someone other than oneself.

    I do not understand “access to universal experience”. Are you referring to the mystic’s sensation of oneness with the universe, that sort of thing? And people who have not experienced that have lived a meaningless life? (I’m just trying to understand what you are meaning.)

    I don’t think the world dies with us when we die, unless you mean something metaphorical: quite a few have died over the course of history, and the world is still here. I must be misunderstanding what you mean.

    Interesting that every voluntary action we take depends on words. I had not realized that. (Reflex actions, I assume, are unaffected by Werkicke’s aphasia.) There must be some threshold effect: babies seem to exhibit voluntary movement long before they have words, so some actions don’t require language knowledge. And once you have some level of language knowledge, having more doesn’t make you physically more capable, I would think, though that would be interesting to investigate.

    If I read you correctly, knowledge is only in the immediate experience within a person’s mind. Thus literature, music, and poetry are knowledge only when a person is reading or listening. Otherwise, the words sit waiting on the page, with no knowledge around. (Examples are writings in Linear A, Etruscan, Mayan, and the like: a book in a lost language is not knowledge until and unless some reads and understands it. Then it’s knowledge—briefly?

    So far I’m still struggling to understand.

    Some specific questions I’m struggling with:

    What are the areas of knowledge? I believe that you’ve said that poetry, literature, and music do not constitute knowledge—nor, I would think, would science or philosophy: all these are in words or symbols, which seems to be a sign that that they don’t represent knowledge. Knowledge (if I understand you) consists purely of transient experience, non-verbal and thus unaccompanied by action, of a universal experience, and is achieved mystically.

    That’s quite an unusual definition, it seems to me. Most of what I know apparently isn’t knowledge. That’s a fine kettle of fish.


    26 April 2011 at 2:59 pm

  14. There is a simple reason you are struggling to understand: You are trying to use words to intellectually understand something beyond words and intellect! It s the classic Ego-dichotomy; the Ego needs words to understand and become engaged in trying to figure something out. But what if what it wants to understand is beyond words? Words are the Ego’s only tools, without them it is lost. So you are trying to use the Ego and words to understand something outside its scope.

    It’s the main reason all formal religions are so screwed up; they try to translate into words, the basic mystical experiences of their founders, and wind up with a slew of misunderstandings.

    Too much intellectualizing. Think Zen koan; poems that appear to be paradoxical and go nowhere – their purpose is to break through the intellect by confusing and frustrating it. Read anything by Alan Watts or Eckhardt Tolle…but not too much…don’t get caught up in the words. Then go to a good Zen master and apprentice. Or Mount Athos to live with the monks. It’s not about reading and thinking, it’s about doing and not thinking, i.e. the Zen state of “no mind”

    The Tao Te Ching puts it very well (Witter Bynner edition):

    Existence is beyond the power of words
    To define:
    Terms may be used
    But are none of them absolute.
    In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words,
    Words came out of the womb of matter;
    And whether a man dispassionately
    Sees to the core of life
    Or passionately
    Sees the surface,
    The core and the surface
    Are essentially the same,
    Words making them seem different
    Only to express appearance.
    If name be needed, wonder names them both:
    From wonder into wonder
    Existence opens.


    26 April 2011 at 3:48 pm

  15. P.S. When I said everything should be measurable, I was referring to a basic dictate of the Scientific Method. In Science, if it can’t be objectively observed and quantified, it doesn’t count as Science.


    26 April 2011 at 3:51 pm

  16. Classic Zen Koans:

    1. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
    2. If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it still make a sound?

    Hey, didn’t you watch Kung Fu as a kid?


    26 April 2011 at 3:55 pm

  17. I am aware of Lord Kelvin’s dictum, and I agree science leans heavily on measurement as an objective referent so that, for example, an investigator can understand and replicate what has been done elsewhere by someone else. But no scientist of my acquaintance has ever maintained that everything can or must be measured. Measurement is fundamental to science, but (as we both agree) science is not everything and much experience is not measured and may not even be measurable.

    Much earlier you wrote:

    The scientific mind will always demean this type of “knowledge” as invalid, but it is in fact, only invalid within the paradigm of the Scientific Method. The belief that the SM is the only way of knowing the Universe is itself a delusion filled with egotistical hubris (Scientism). Of course, Scientism will rationalize way intuition as a function of neurotransmitters and brain structure as if there can be nothing else.

    I am not the person you’re describing, and I haven’t met such a person, though they may well exist. Knowing how to play a banjo seems quite valid to me, for example. It is definitely knowledge, it’s not measurable (except quite roughly, by number of notes missed—which isn’t the point, after all).

    Are you saying that ALL knowledge is of the nonverbal sort? Surely not. You, after all, offer knowledge for sale, after all. I understand that mystical knowledge exists, cannot be shared, and is interesting. But since words do nothing in that area, I think that sums it up and we can move on.

    You haven’t discussed the relative reality of emergences. For example, your statement that word “tree” is completely illusory: I find that untrue. Tree is a perfectly good word, words exist, they refer to things, etc. Language and memes are emergent, but they are real. It’s just not the reality of a rock.

    I suppose this is a fruitless discussion if you don’t accept arguments couched in words.


    26 April 2011 at 4:06 pm

  18. I do watch kung-fu movies, have read about Buddhism in its varieties. Those are fine, and they exist alongside and in the same universe—and, for me, in the same universe of discourse—as scientific knowledge. You see an opposition between modes of knowledge that I don’t see or experience—it’s almost as if you want the various ways of understanding to fight it out so we could know the “winner”: the best way to understand. This is alien to me.


    26 April 2011 at 4:08 pm

  19. Actually, I see them as complementary. Each is valid for different applications. I do suspect that that is often not the case for many people. Science as the pre-eminent way of knowledge is likely moe mainstream in the secular world. This discussion began around the topic of how deniers of science use many mental devices to accommodate and support their own perspective. I was just emphasizing that there are alternative epistemological paradigms and that not all denial of scientific fact is necessarily just simple denial but may be due to alternative belief systems. The topic expanded from there.


    26 April 2011 at 4:27 pm

  20. Specifically, it concerns people who reject a position with no examination of evidence or logical argument. I suspect that many of the more aggressive rejecters of scientific argument (climate change denialists, evolution deniers, anti-vaccine people, and the like) are not channeling any direct mystical knowledge that leads them to reject the findings—as is evident by their seeming inability to recognize evidence and follow logical argument.

    Then the question is: How do they manage that? and the science of psychology is on the case.

    Knowledge that’s not amenable to sharing in any way is solipsistic, it strikes me. Much of the non-verbal knowledge I proposed can be shared, by sharing the food, music, practice, etc.

    And it is interesting how our minds work.

    Now: about using words to refer to things and about the emergence of entities. Do you continue to believe that words are an illusion? (I guess if you understand the question, that’s some indication that they’re not.)


    26 April 2011 at 5:05 pm

  21. Words are just verbal representations or symbols of a reality that we use to communicate with each other. They “exist” and can even be recorded….but to the tree they mean nothing! Hey, that’s a little Haiku!


    26 April 2011 at 5:15 pm

  22. Good. So words are real. (I assume: I am taking “”exist”” to mean simply “exist”—if that’s not right, let me know.)

    Yes, words mean nothing to atoms, rocks, trees, cats, dogs—wait, they do mean something to some dogs. I’m not sure what the point is: trees don’t think, despite Riverdell and all.

    I also wonder at your use of “just”: I think it’s a very big deal that we can represent reality in symbols, and its utility has long since been proved. Indeed, words are sometimes said to be the tool that makes us human. No “just” about it.

    Moreover, once there is a culture of shared experience, emergence kicks in and we find ourselves in a universe of memes, which certainly are real enough to affect insensate reality and even influence the direction of our evolution.

    Emergence is quite interesting as a source of new kinds of entities in reality.


    26 April 2011 at 5:33 pm

  23. BTW, do you really think psychology has nothing to tell us about how we select mates?


    26 April 2011 at 5:39 pm

  24. Psychology can explain why people deny reality, but little about what to do about it!


    26 April 2011 at 5:41 pm

  25. Right: another topic entirely, one that’s not of interest right now. I just want to understand the phenomenon, which seems important (given the rate at which denialists derail evidence-based reform).


    26 April 2011 at 5:51 pm

  26. Since we’re back on topic, perhaps it just seems somewhat routine to me, the idea of why people deny reality; occupational hazard, I guess, since we see the various defense mechanisms at play at every corner in my business.

    People deny reality because change is threatening. The Ego constantly seeks to protect itself by denying its mistakes, because accepting a mistake is very tough on the Ego; it threatens its illusion of supremacy over other Egos, and that supremacy is central to its sense of power and dominance, it’s ability to get more than its fair share of the pie. As I said, that’s how it is designed. Great survival tool.

    It is easier to deny reality when there is controversy (which there always is with Science, until the weight of evidence becomes overwhelming, which takes many years, e.g. cigarettes).

    You think denial of global warming is such a surprise? Hell, potential Republican presidential candidate Donal Trump comes out and joins the Birthers in denying Obama’s legitimacy! How nutty is that? Presidential Apprentice…..You’re fired! Hahahahaahaha.

    All this to say that denial, along with rationalization and projection are classic Freudian constructs that really seem to exist (almost like words, Heheh).

    Just to play psychologist for a moment: Why is all this so surprising????? It’s human nature.


    27 April 2011 at 3:59 am

  27. The idea of science is to understand, and that means to tease out the exact mental mechanisms at work, even if they are unconscious. You surely know the ingenious experiments that reveal what is happening beneath the surface. Saying that what happens is “human nature” is, in my view, not much of an explanation. Do you tell your customers that their businesses are in trouble because that’s simply the nature of businesses? Or do you explore and try to understand the sources of problems and the mechanisms involved and try to solve the problem?

    The same thing is involved in this experiment, though at this point (and this was decades ago), they are still collecting data and studying cases in preparation for the more detailed (and clever) investigations of today.

    Science, above all, seeks understanding. As you would possibly put it, it is human nature to want to know. Applying the knowledge is another matter, and generally that falls to engineering. The scientific search is (in my mind) purely a search for understanding.

    Regarding the ego, you’ve possibly read Gerald Weinberg’s excellent book The Psychology of Computer Programming, on the practice of egoless programming and how successful that proved to be. And it occurs to me that St. John’s, particularly in its seminar discussions, was teaching (and allowing us to practice and thus learn) egoless argument. It works like this:

    The seminar students read a difficult but rewarding text—we start with the Iliad, move on to Plato, the Odyssey, lots more Plato, Aristotle, etc. (Here’s the current list, sorted by year of the four-year program.)

    So we sit around the table and discuss what the text means, beginning with one of the two tutors asking a question of the group. The tutors mostly listen, occasionally asking a question, often just telling a student, “Tell me more” or “Go on”—typically when a student just flashed on an insight and blurts it out. This is always interesting—I returned later for three more years, as director of admissions and tutor—because the initial insight comes in a flash and is clear to the student, but the implications of the insight have to be worked out, and saying “Go on” enables/forces/teaches the student how to work out what a thought means, on purpose—i.e., to think deliberately on a question rather than relying on inspiration and insight: to work it out. (Both are important, of course.)

    There is a fair amount of preening and presentation, of course, but the tutors keep the attention on the text and our understanding of it, and students gradually grasp that the seminar works best—and they enjoy it most—if they focus on the effort to understand and work in a dialectical mode: questioning each other, responding fully and thoughtfully, recognizing problems in the argument or underacting (in themselves or in others), and digging into the problems with questions and answers.

    Working together, fixing broken arguments, working in tandem to build an understanding—all that puts egos in the background. They may burst out, and some seminars never jell, but on the whole students learn to listen, to respond fully, and to build arguments with others that lead to improved understanding.

    I thought this discussion might lead to something, but it’s extremely difficult to have that sort of discussion through passing notes, as it were. Moreover, responses are written at different times, and the thread of the argument is difficult to keep in mind over days. So it didn’t work. We were (in my view) trying to understand some ambition things, but to end with “It’s human nature” is disappointing. The structure of understanding did not come together this time. It happens.


    27 April 2011 at 7:01 am

  28. BTW, I don’t think saying “It’s human nature” is a particularly psychological response. When you studied psychology, was that the usual conclusion to investigations?


    27 April 2011 at 7:02 am

  29. “It’s human nature” simply means it’s in the design itself. It may well be the end of a discussion unless there is some more specific question. I thought the answer around the Ego’s need for dominance was an explanation in itself, and the “it’s human nature” part was simply to say that that’s the way it’s built. I’m not sure what the prevailing question is beyond that.


    27 April 2011 at 4:32 pm

  30. Aha. But don’t all our acts follow from human nature? (Except, I suppose, the unnatural ones.)

    My earlier comment—the longer one—goes into more detail on the desire to understand (beyond “the Ego did it”) and on some successful ways to minimize destructive effects of Ego. Ego is not all bad, I take it.


    27 April 2011 at 5:01 pm

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