Monday, July 28, 2008

Got Another One!

Nature published "Hillcrest v. Velikovsky" last week — and the very next day, this cog-sci dude named Mike Meadon posted an erudite and outraged blog entry on the insanity of the kind of world we live in, that such things could actually happen. Evidently he didn't realize that the work was fiction (until the famous PZ Meyers gently pointed it out). And to give the man his due, his subsequent post was all mea culpaey, and he left the original posting intact as an object lesson on the virtues of skepticism about skepticism.

This is not the first time I've managed to get smart people to believe dumb things (although this may be the first time I've done so without meaning to). I used to do it all the time. Back in the day, a friend and I used some judicious if low-tech special effects to convince a visiting Brazilian scientist that the Deer Island house we were staying in was haunted. When all the blinds in her room shot up simultaneously at three a.m., I swear she never touched a single step on her way downstairs and out the door. She not only refused to step back inside the house, she high-tailed it right off the island. Did the rest of her field work out of Grand Manan. (In hindsight, we actually felt kind of bad about that.)

But perhaps my proudest moment was during my doctorate, when I convinced a couple of fellow grad students (in arts, granted, but still) that whenever I went into the field I had to strip naked and glue yellow sponges all over my body, because harbour seals couldn't see yellow wavelengths. (Why not just wear yellow clothes? you ask. Why, because it would have to be yellow rain gear — given the wet field environment — and rain gear is slick, i.e. reflective, i.e. the seals would still be able to see the glare if not the actual colour.) My victims were astonished, and profoundly impressed by my dedication to the cause — "There has to be a better way", they insisted — but when I begged them to name one ("because seriously, those fuckers hurt when you rip them off"), they came up blank. Nice Matisse t-shirts, though.

Of course, the word gets around. These days, all I have to do is open my mouth and pretty much anyone who knows me will accuse me of trying to bullshit them. Still. I'm frequently astonished at how easy it is to Punk the People. I'm finally getting around to reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, which takes way too long to get to the point but which makes a similar point: we as a species often believe the most absurd things as long as there's some kind of narrative attached. We are pattern-matchers, because patterns allow us to distill the environment into a series of simple rules. So we see patterns whether they exist or not, and stories that tie causes to any given phenomenon (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body because harbour seals can't see yellow) are a lot more believable than those which simply report the same phenomenon in isolation (I glue yellow sponges onto my naked body). We are engines in search of narrative. Evidently this goes a long way towards explaining the inanity of most CNN headlines.

Not sure I buy it completely, though. If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it.

Labels: ,

24 Comments:

Blogger korpios said...

I'd be interested in reading your thoughts after you finish The Black Swan; I found it simultaneously compelling and infuriating, in that it makes excellent points while draped in a fabric of pretension (e.g., inventing characters to illustrate his points without noting that they are fiction) and occasional idiocy (e.g., the straw man line about consistency between views on abortion and the death penalty). That said, I consider the book to hold better advice for living than a library's worth of self-help texts; an introvert like myself could particularly stand to heed his advice regarding parties (and the positive black swans they generate).

July 28, 2008 at 9:30 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it.

This argument would be more convincing if other critical occupations like teacher and garbage hauler were well paid.

July 29, 2008 at 12:51 AM  
Blogger Alyx said...

You are a trickster god, and without even trying! Most admirable!!

July 29, 2008 at 10:03 AM  
Blogger Meghan said...

So what you're saying is, the clouds aren't sentient then?

July 29, 2008 at 5:15 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

SpeakerToManagers said...

This argument would be more convincing if other critical occupations like teacher and garbage hauler were well paid.

I don't know what color the sky is on your world, but over here garbage collectors and teachers get paid way more than your average author. Hell, I know one primary-school teacher who barely got her B.Sc. (her usual response to failing a course was to try and put in a complaint about the prof) and who, to this day, reads about one book per decade. She makes nearly 80K annually.

July 29, 2008 at 6:11 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Meghan said...

So what you're saying is, the clouds aren't sentient then?

They may not be. But you can't blame me for that one. That was CNN.

July 29, 2008 at 6:12 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

She makes nearly 80K annually.

Wow. I don't know any teachers who do anywhere near that well. Most of the ones I know have been taking cuts (especially in health care insurance) and watching their colleagues get laid off over the last 10 years or so. And watching schools close, and new District Supervisors be hired at higher and higher salaries. And delaying retirement or coming back from it because they can't make it on savings that were set up based on a cost of living that's 20 years out of date.

So is this a Canada vs. US thing? Or do you just live in a more enlighted world than I do?

July 29, 2008 at 8:16 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

She makes 80K?!?!?! WHAT? I've had teachers with PhDs who didn't make half that!

July 30, 2008 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger Alyx said...

I'm pretty sure they don't make that much in B.C., either.

July 30, 2008 at 9:50 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Actually, this lady is in BC. Lower mainland, mainly the north shore. And she didn't make all of 80K — more mid-seventies, if she's to be believed. Still.

Of course, I know another Vancouver teacher who works for the Catholic School Board — Christian Brothers, IIRC. I suspect she may be making somewhat less, especially since those guys have had to start selling their nuns into prostitution to pay for all the sex-abuse settlements. The difference, I would guess, has something to do with unions.

Man, it would be great if us sf writers had a real union instead of the toothless, senile, and pathetic joke that is SFWA. It would be nice to get some actual backup over the latest butt-fuck from Tor, instead of having to bite my tongue for fear of reinforcing the whole "difficult-author" rep.

July 30, 2008 at 10:09 AM  
Blogger David Nickle said...

Yeah, that's a pretty funny trick. Until you spend eight hours in Emergency getting yellow sponge and epoxy scraped off the back of your scrotum while trying to ignore the oh-so-droll clapping and barking coming from your so-called 'friends' in the waiting room.

Yeah, Watts.

Pretty.

Funny.

July 30, 2008 at 4:21 PM  
Blogger Alyx said...

Seriously? Wow. I guess the teacher I know best is in a private school, now that you mention it.

July 30, 2008 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

I'm finally getting around to reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, which takes way too long to get to the point but which makes a similar point: we as a species often believe the most absurd things as long as there's some kind of narrative attached. We are pattern-matchers, because patterns allow us to distill the environment into a series of simple rules. So we see patterns whether they exist or not, and stories that tie causes to any given phenomenon.
Conversely, in relation to BLINDSIGHT, could you make the point that we often do not "see" or perceive reality, actual events, if they do not conform to a familiar or predictable narrative?

August 4, 2008 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

That reminded me on a similar note - I read an article recently on the neuroscience of optical illusions that was fascinating. The basic theory is that since there is a short but perceptible delay between the time a photon strikes the retina and a signal reaches the conscious mind, the brain is actually generating a "guess" as to what we should see that fraction of a second ahead of the signal - realtime, so to speak.

So everything we see is actually an illusion or mind-generated image based on rules evolved basically over the entire existence of the organism. Optical illusions, including magic tricks, operate on the principle that if the image breaks the rules, the brain will either not see it, or generate false information about what it is seeing.

It seems like certain expectation is hardwired in our visual centers at least.

Is this really the first time anyone thought to ask why we don't perceive a delay between light reception and perception? Did scientists assume there wasn't one?

August 4, 2008 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking by Thomas E. Kida

· We prefer stories to statistics.

· We seek to confirm, not to question, our ideas.

· We rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events.

· We sometimes misperceive the world around us.

· We tend to oversimplify our thinking.

· Our memories are often inaccurate.

http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Believe-Everything-You-Think/dp/1591024080/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1217946928&sr=8-1

August 5, 2008 at 10:39 AM  
OpenID Branko Collin said...

It's all a lie: you did not really convince your fellow grad students you had to dress in yellow sponges!

"If the telling of stories were really so central to the human condition, you'd think those of us who did it for a living would at least get a decent dollar out of it."

Didn't those of you who tell stories for a living already realize you had to get out of writing novels and into writing tv / movies / games / wherever the money's now?

August 5, 2008 at 6:34 PM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

John Henning said...

The basic theory is that since there is a short but perceptible delay between the time a photon strikes the retina and a signal reaches the conscious mind, the brain is actually generating a "guess" as to what we should see that fraction of a second ahead of the signal - realtime, so to speak...
Is this really the first time anyone thought to ask why we don't perceive a delay between light reception and perception? Did scientists assume there wasn't one?


My understanding was that we always live a fraction of a second in the past, perceptually — while I'm all over the brain's ability to guess, interpolate, and ignore perceived input, this is the first I've heard of an ability to generate anticipated input that it can't distinguish from the so-called realtime stuff. Is there a citation you could point me at?

August 6, 2008 at 10:41 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Bob said...

Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking by Thomas E. Kida ... *snippage*

Yeah, that all sounds very Black Swanny, from what I've read so far...

Branko Collin said...

It's all a lie: you did not really convince your fellow grad students you had to dress in yellow sponges!

I did! I swear!

Didn't those of you who tell stories for a living already realize you had to get out of writing novels and into writing tv / movies / games / wherever the money's now?

Oh, we know. Hell, those fiblets I've been putting out are from a story cycle which I've explicitly designed as a series of mission levels in a video game. But I have no idea how to pitch such a concept to anyone in that industry — and I have the advantage of having actually worked in that industry, albeit briefly and as as a contracted outsider. I know a couple of people in the business; but there just doesn't seem to be any set of protocols by which an outsider can pitch a game based on narrative. Rather, you get a bunch of coders sitting around a table looking at this nifty spaghetti-ball controller they've developed, and saying "we gotta base a game on this technology" — and then more or less cobbling the story together themselves.

Poor me, huh?

August 6, 2008 at 10:50 AM  
Blogger John Henning said...

Peter Watts posted
My understanding was that we always live a fraction of a second in the past, perceptually — while I'm all over the brain's ability to guess, interpolate, and ignore perceived input, this is the first I've heard of an ability to generate anticipated input that it can't distinguish from the so-called realtime stuff. Is there a citation you could point me at?

Here's the site where I read the article - it's research by a guy named Changizi:
http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/080602-foresee-future.html

Researcher Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York says it starts with a neural lag that most everyone experiences while awake. When light hits your retina, about one-tenth of a second goes by before the brain translates the signal into a visual perception of the world.

Scientists already knew about the lag, yet they have debated over exactly how we compensate, with one school of thought proposing our motor system somehow modifies our movements to offset the delay.

Changizi now says it's our visual system that has evolved to compensate for neural delays, generating images of what will occur one-tenth of a second into the future. That foresight keeps our view of the world in the present. It gives you enough heads up to catch a fly ball (instead of getting socked in the face) and maneuver smoothly through a crowd. His research on this topic is detailed in the May/June issue of the journal Cognitive Science,

August 6, 2008 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Peter Watts said...

Thank you for that, John. That's great. It also begs some nifty questions: how far ahead can we cognitively jump, if we try to enhance that ability? And at what point do you become the Kwisatz Haderach?

August 6, 2008 at 12:08 PM  
Blogger John Henning said...

Now that's an interesting idea for a story. Kinda reminds me of Phillip K. Dick's famous short story "The Golden Man" that was the basis for the far inferior Nic Cage movie Next. In it, a mutant was able to see about thirty minutes into the future and adjust his movements to evade capture. In the movie, it was only 2 minutes, but I wonder if the predictive function could be pushed to give some people a discernible advantage (or make them more susceptible to magician's tricks)?

For me, the interesting idea was how this function or visual neuro-mechanism could be fooled into seeing or not seeing things.

Here is another interesting article that's sorta in the same area (from Canada):

http://www.canada.com/topics/news/national/story.html?id=5683a3ab-a636-47d9-b95c-eb6947e695ce

Canadian researchers put scientific focus on hocus-pocus
Margaret Munro , Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The little red ball is tossed upward and disappears into thin air, defying the laws of nature.

Or so it seems.

Turns out, the ball never left the magician's hand, but more than half the audience report seeing it in the air, say Canadian and British researchers studying how illusions work their magic on the human mind.

Magician Alym Amlani performs a card trick in Rotary Park in Saskatoon, Sask. Amlani is one of the researches who believes that revealing the science behind age-old magic tricks will help us better understand how humans see, think, and act.

Magician Alym Amlani performs a card trick in Rotary Park in Saskatoon, Sask. Amlani is one of the researches who believes that revealing the science behind age-old magic tricks will help us better understand how humans see, think, and act.

They say magic, which has plenty in common with advertising, political propaganda and even car accidents, should be taken much more seriously.


"It involves a process known as mental forcing," Amlani says of the card trick that involves subtly manipulating the participant to select a particular card. Amlani can even do it over the phone, telling a reporter she'd picked the queen of hearts during a telephone interview from Saskatoon, where he is at summer school.

Magicians' ability to control people's attention, distort perception and influence choice often entail high level cognitive and optical illusions that are not well-understood by science, according to the report by Rensink, Amlani and colleague Gustav Kuhn at Britain's Durham University, in the current issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Amlani and Kuhn, who also does magic, maintain that conjurers are way ahead of cognitive scientists, having spent centuries devising and passing on techniques that trick the human mind.


I like the term "mental forcing." These guys should give Changizi a call.

August 6, 2008 at 12:24 PM  
OpenID Branko Collin said...

My experience with game developers is mostly limited to text adventure authors, who A) work for free, and B) are nuts about narrative. Just sayin' that my view of that world is probably a little skewed. :-)

Still, if you're serious about making more money telling stories, you probably shouldn't expect the industries with money to adapt to you, no matter how talented you are.

And if you really want to talk to people in that industry, why don't you go talk with ... er, people in that industry? Maybe you don't know how your fiblets can be reworked into a game design, but I'd guess they would, and you at least have the advantage of being a name. I'm sure there are lots of game designers who would love to do hard SF, but haven't got the foggiest about where to start either.

August 8, 2008 at 7:39 AM  
Blogger gordsellar said...

Hee, a similar thing happened with the the story I published in Nature, though it was even more (ridiculously) far-fetched than yours... except it was a series of emails. I wonder just how often someone is fooled by these stories in "Futures"!

August 11, 2008 at 10:06 AM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

Bob said...
Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking by Thomas E. Kida


Except for us here on this blog. We never do any of those 6 things, ever. Especially that one about preferring a good narrative.

August 18, 2008 at 11:02 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home