I find myself in an untenable situation. I have plenty to write about but I am finding that the choices I am making right now, in the splendor of summer, give me limited time and energy to write. I’ve decided to take a short hiatus.
Over the last seven months my writing has been spurred on by relentless curiosity about belief systems that are held despite mountains of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This cognitive conservatism absolutely befuddles me. And I am further driven to understand why ideology carries such overwhelming power over people and how it drives people to attack evidence or science in general. In a similar vain, I struggle with politics. The efforts made by the United States on the world’s stage to me seem to be a desperate attempt to slay the Hydra by means of decapitation. People close to me, that I love and have deep respect for, look at this war and even the environment in vastly different ways than I do.
Looking back, I have learned a great deal about the thinking processes that drive these different world views. Essentially we have what Michael Shermer calls a Belief Engine for a brain. We are hard wired to believe and make copious errors that incline us to believe – even silly things – regardless of evidence. We have successfully evolved in a world for hundreds of thousands of years devoid of statistics and analysis all the while thriving on snap judgments. Evolution itself, as a process, has inhibited our ability to accept its veracity. Stepping away from the belief engine demands a level of analysis that is foreign and often unpalatable. It is hard to be a skeptic yet oh so easy to go with our hard wired intuitive thinking. If you are new to my blog look back at entries that explore erroneous thinking, rational thought, the adaptive unconscious, memory, morality and even religion.
Looking forward I plan on delving further into our enigmatic Belief Engine. I want to further explore the errors of intuition, specifically the illusion of cause, implicit associations, as well as Jonathon Haidt’s work on political affiliation. Later I hope to switch gears and delve into the unique attributes of our planet that makes it hospitable for complex life.
There are moments in life when you hear something that absolutely blows you away. I experienced such a moment on July 1st at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. It wasn’t just the words I heard that touched me so. It was the words within the context, and the relative embrace of the words exhibited by the people that surrounded me.
First you have to understand the unique setting that is Chautauqua: an amusement park for the mind. It was initially built on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in 1874 as an “educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning.” Although initially the courses were for Sunday school teachers, its success and popularity precipitated a broadening of the curriulum to include academic subjects, music, art and physical education. Today on their website they note that “7,500 persons are in residence on any day during a nine-week season, and a total of over 142,000 attend scheduled public events. Over 8,000 students enroll annually in the Chautauqua Summer Schools which offer courses in art, music, dance, theater, writing skills and a wide variety of special interests.”
For those longing for intellectual and artistic stimulation in a peaceful setting, it constitutes a veritable fantasy land adorned with quaint Victorian era cottages often fronted with beautiful and pristine landscaping. Among its many homes, inns, and entertainment facilities arranged in a cozy village-like setting, are church houses where people congregate from all over the United States for religious retreats. The four pillars of Chautauqua are Art, Education, Religion, and Recreation. Needless to say, religion (particularly Christianity) is a big part of this community. But so is education and art. They have a quality symphony orchestra, a theater group, an opera company, and a dance ensemble. Nightly, they provide top notch entertainment in the sizable amphitheater. Throughout each day, every day, there are lectures and events galore.
The last three years my wife and I have ventured to Chautauqua for science themed days where we attended lectures by people like Donald Johanson and Carl Zimmer. NASA had a mock up of a Mars Rover there last year. This year I was drawn by Alan Alda who is a true science geek like myself.
Each afternoon the Department of Religion hosts a lecture series. Although I often miss these events for a number of reasons, this year, my innkeeper, knowing my proclivities, strongly recommended that I consider listening to this week’s speaker. I took her advice and my wife and I skeptically sat at the Hall of Philosophy among an overflow crowd that I could only guess exceeded 1000 people. The lecturer was John Shelby Spong, a Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Rabbi Samuel Stahl introduced Bishop Spong and the Rabbi’s words drew me in, in a way that made me feel as though my mind was being read. It was a spine-tingling experience from the outset, and Spong’s words were unlike any I had ever heard from a man of God.
I certainly will not be able to capture and share in this medium the true essence of his message – but I will attempt to briefly summarize it. I STRONGLY encourage any person of faith as well as any person like myself who falls into the agnostic or atheist camp to listen to this lecture: Transcending Religion without Transcending God. You can sign up for a 15 Day Free Trial / Download Account and listen to this lecture online or pay $9.95 for a download to your iPod or MP3 player.
I’m guessing that anyone who listens to this talk with an open mind will be in some way moved by his words. I am also guessing that personal reactions will run the gamut from “this guy is a heretic” to “finally a voice of reason coming from the religious community.” If you are likely to be among the former, Spong proclaims that he wishes to destroy no one’s faith, but boldly states that “If I can take away your God, you had very little, if you can lose it all in one hour.”
If you are religious, keep in mind as you consider listening, that this lecture was part four of a five part series. Spong had lectured in a similar vain for three consecutive days at the Hall of Philosophy to a pretty religious group of people and this day’s crowd was the biggest I had ever seen gathered (excluding events at the amphitheater). This was not an angry or defensive crowd, but a thoughtful and attentive one. What Spong said deeply challenged conventional definitions of religion but the people came back for more. And if you are a rationalist, more inclined toward science than mysticism, you will be refreshed by Spong’s embrace of science and urging away from the traditional notions of religion that many find hard to accept. Even Richard Dawkins seems to respect Spong.
Spong derides religious zealots who promote racism, sexism, antisemitism, and homophobia based upon quotations from the Holy Scriptures. His rational embrace of science and the realities of human suffering (often as a result of religion’s influence) have guided his journey toward a reinterpretation of the faith story. He strongly asserts that he wants nothing to do with any institution that diminishes the humanity of any child of God. He deplores how the Bible and the Church have harbored those that have relegated blacks to subhuman status, women as second class citizens, and gay and lesbian people as essentially immoral. He explains the human experience within a context of understanding derived from biology and anthropology. He links our instinctual drive to survive to all living organisms and with this understanding, supplants the notion of original sin. He embraces the teachings of Darwin and reinterprets salvation – not as a rescue from the fall from perfection but as a new understanding of what it is to be fully human. After all, we haven’t fallen – we have evolved.
Salvation he argues is not to be made religious. It is not to be forced into a particular creed or to follow a particular faith story. Salvation is to be made whole – to be called beyond our limits, our fears, our boundaries, and to be called into a new consciousness, a new humanity – where we can be called beyond our selfish drive to survive, and begin to truly give of our lives and our love.
Spong challenges both the notions of a personal God with supernatural powers and the traditional Jesus story. He derides the traditional notion that humans are inherently depraved – and looks at our understanding of human development and asks if it is a wise parenting strategy to tell a child that he is bad, evil, and depraved in an attempt to turn that child into a healthy adult. He looks at how religion victimizes its followers and how in turn its practice facilitates hate and division.
Spong provides a sobering account of religion in general – particularly the prejudicial inspiration it has historically provided and the violence it has incited in the name of one’s preferred deity. Again, rather than reject science as a threat to an ideology, he embraces evidence, and searches for a new spiritual transcendence of God – to fill what he describes as a God Shaped Whole in every living person. His ultimate mysticism is a bit of a stretch for me – but all in all – the 80 minutes required to listen to his message is indeed time well spent. The experience itself, for me, set in the Chautauqua Institution context, was deeply moving and inspired hope that we can move away from the unnecessary corrosive derision whereby some religious zealots dumb down the masses to protect their fragile foothold or engage in promulgating the dehumanization of those who are different. It gives me hope that those who have spiritual needs unfulfilled by the wonders of the universe can find peace with God in a way that bolsters our humanity rather than in a way that divides us. Please give Spong a listen and let me know what you experience through his message.
In psychology there are some pretty famous studies that have penetrated popular culture. Many folks are at least familiar with Skinner’s rat box, Pavlov’s salivating dogs, Milgram’s obedience studies, Bandura’s Bobo Dolls, and Harlow’s rhesus monkeys reared by wire frame terry cloth mothers. In recent history, perhaps the most well known study pertains to inattentional blindness. If you have never heard of or seen a video of six college students, three in black shirts and three in white shirts, bouncing a couple basketballs back and forth, see the following video before you proceed.
So, of course I am referring to Daniel Simons’ Invisible Gorilla study. Just about everyone I know has seen this video, and I don’t recall any of them telling me that they did see the gorilla. I didn’t and I was absolutely flabbergasted – because I tend to be a pretty vigilant guy. This video is a graphic illustration of what Chabris and Simons (2010) refer to as the Illusion of Attention, and about 50% of those who watch the video while counting passes among white shirted players miss the gorilla.
This particular illusion concerns me because I spend a fare amount of time riding a bicycle on the roads of Western New York. So why should I or anyone who rides a bicycle or motorcycle, or anyone who drives while texting or talking on a cell phone be concerned?
The cold hard truth is that we may completely miss events or stimuli that we do not expect to see. If you don’t expect to see, and therefore fail to look for, bicycles and motorcycles, you may look right at them but fail to see them. LOOKING IS NOT SEEING just as hearing is not listening. This hearing/listening analogy is dead on. How often have you been caught hearing someone but not listening to what was actually being said? Chabris and Simons discuss in their book, The Invisible Gorilla, a study conducted by Daniel Memmert of Heidelberg University that demonstrated (using an eye-tracker) that virtually everyone who missed the gorilla looked directly at it at some point in the video (often for a full second). Bikers are the invisible gorillas of the roadways.
And as for drivers, if you are distracted by a cell phone conversation or by texting, you are less likely to see unexpected events (e.g., bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, wildlife).
Most drivers who text and talk on cell phones do not have problems. In fact, most driving is uneventful – as a result, most people get away with these behaviors. However, it is when there is an unexpected event that mobile phone users struggle with seeing and responding fluently to these events. You are under the same illusion as everybody else who has not been in an accident. Everyone believes, until they hit or kill somebody, that they are proficient drivers even while texting or talking on the phone. And by the way, hands free head sets make no difference. Driving while talking on a cell phone disables you as much as does alcohol.
Think about driving down a road not seeing and subsequently hitting a young child on a bike. Think about having to live with killing a middle aged couple with three kids in college who were lawfully riding down the road on a tandem bicycle. You hit the invisible gorilla. Live with that!
Daniel Simons, in a recently published study, also suggests that even if you are expecting an unexpected event, it is likely that you will miss other unanticipated events. Check out The Monkey Business Illusion video even if you have seen the invisible gorilla video. Test yourself.
I have long known that I am at risk while riding my bike on the road. I have recently incorporated wearing bright hi-vis attire as I ride. Doing so is completely inconsistent with my style; but I have done so in an effort to be safer. I was surprised to learn that research shows that doing so will increase your visibility for those that are looking for you – but that it will likely make no difference at all for inattentionally blind drivers. For those drivers who do not expect to see cyclists, hi-vis clothing will not likely increase the likelihood that you will be seen. Using head and tail lights works on a similar level. They do increase visibility but only for those looking for such strange sights. The best way to increase one’s safety while riding is to look like a car.
It is also important to note that riding in areas where there are more bikers helps too. Chabris and Simons (2010) noted a report by Peter Jacobson, a public health consultant in California who analyzed data on accidents involving automobiles striking pedestrians or cyclists. He found that in cities where there were more walkers and cyclists, there were actually fewer accidents. More folks walking or riding bikes seems to increase the level of driver expectation for seeing such individuals – thus making one less at risk of being victimized by inattentional blindness. It was further noted that drivers who also ride bikes may actually be more aware – if only more people would get out of their cars and get back on bicycles.
The bottom line is that our intuition about our attention is problematic. Intuitively we believe that we attend to and see, what is right before us. Research and real world data shows us that this is not the case. At the very least, when driving, we need to be aware of this erroneous assumption, and work diligently to avoid distractions like talking on the phone or texting. As for cyclists (motor powered or not) we must anticipate that we won’t be seen and behave accordingly. Although hi-vis clothing and lights may not aid in your visibility for some drivers, it will for those that are looking out for you.
Chabris and Simons contend that this illusion is a by product of modernity and the subsequent fast paced highly distracting world we live in. We have evolved for millions of years by process of natural selection in a middle sized slow paced world. Traveling faster than a few miles an hour is a relatively new development for our species. Today we travel in motor vehicles at break neck speeds. On top of that we distract ourselves with cell phones, Blackberries, iPhones, iPods and GPS units. Although the consequences of these factors can be grave – in most cases we squeak by – which is a double edged sword because it essentially reinforces the illusion and the behavior.
Imagine yourself walking down a familiar street approaching a stranger who is obviously lost, staring hopelessly at a map. As you saunter by you provide eye contact and a look of willingness to help. He asks you for directions. As you begin to offer your advice, you are interrupted by a construction crew carrying a large door. They walk right between you and the stranger. Now imagine that as the construction crew parted you visually from the stranger a new and different person covertly took on the same lost role. This new stranger is wearing different clothes, is taller by three inches, has a different build, and different vocal qualities. Do you think you would notice?
Chabris and Simons (2010) in the The Invisible Gorilla share the results of a study carried out by Dan Simons and a colleague where they tested whether people would notice such changes in a scenario very much like the one I just described. When the scenario was described to undergraduates, 95% believed that they would certainly notice such a change (as is likely the case for you as well). Yet when this experiment was carried out in the real world, nearly 50% of the participants did not notice the switch!
This particularly startling data is indicative of change blindness, defined by Chabris and Simons (2010) as failure to notice changes between what was in view moments before and what is in view currently. Essentially, we tend not to compare and thus notice stimuli changes from moment to moment. As a result we tend to be “blind” in many cases to pretty obvious changes. And what is equally salient is that we are unaware of this blindness. If you are like most people you said “No way I’d miss that!” Yet it is likely that about half of you would miss such changes.
Unconvinced? So were a group of Harvard undergraduates who had just attended a lecture that covered the above “door study” and change blindness. After the lecture, students were recruited to participate in further research. Interested students were directed to a different floor where they were greeted by an experimenter behind a counter. As the recruits proceeded to review and complete the necessary paperwork, the experimenter who greeted and instructed them regarding the paperwork ducked down behind the counter, presumably to file some papers, only to depart as a new and different experimenter took over the role. Even after being primed with the knowledge of change blindness, not one of the students noticed the swap! This was true even for some of the students who had just moments before boldly stated that they would notice such a change. We are in fact largely blind to our change blindness regardless of our confidence regarding our vigilance.
These results, contend Chabris and Simons, comprise conclusive evidence for the illusion of memory, (which is the disconnect between how our memory works and how we think it works).
Most of us are all too aware of the failings of our short-term memory. We often forget where we put the car keys, cell phone, or sunglasses. These authors note that we are generally pretty accurate when it comes to knowing the limits of this type of memory. License plates and phone numbers have only seven digits because most of us can only hold that much data in short-term memory. However, when it comes to understanding the limits of our long-term memory we tend to hold entirely unrealistic, fallacious, and illusory expectations.
“In a national survey of fifteen hundred people [Chabris and Simons] commissioned in 2009, we included several questions designed to probe how people think memory works. Nearly half (47%) of the respondents believed that ‘once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory doesn’t change.’ An even greater percentage (63%) believed that ‘human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp. 45-46).
“People who agreed with both statements apparently think that memories of all our experiences are stored permanently in our brains in an immutable form, even if we can’t access them. It is impossible to disprove this belief… but most experts on human memory find it implausible that the brain would devote energy and space to storing every detail of our lives…” (p. 46).
So, as it turns out, our memories of even significant life events are quite fallible. Although we perceive such memories as being vivid and clear, they are individual constructions based on what we already know, our previous experiences, and other cognitive and emotional associations that we ultimately pair with the event. “These associations help us discern what is important and to recall details about what we’ve seen. They provide ‘retrieval cues’ that make our memories more fluent. In most cases, such cues are helpful. But these associations can also lead us astray, precisely because they lead to an inflated sense of precision of memory.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 48). In other words, our memories are not exact recordings, they are instead modified and codified personal replicas that are anything but permanent.
I cannot do justice to the impressive and exhaustive detailing that Chabris and Simons provide in the The Invisible Gorilla regarding the illusion of memory. However, suffice it to say, that we give way too much credit to the accuracy of our own long-term memories and have unrealistic expectations regarding others’ recall. People recall what they expect to remember and memories are modified over time based on malleable belief systems. Memories fade and morph over time depending on the “motives and goals of the rememberer.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, p. 51).
“Although we believe that our memories contain precise accounts of what we see and hear, in reality these records can be remarkably scanty. What we retrieve often is filled in based on gist, inference, and other influences; it is more like an improvised riff on a familiar melody than a digital recording of an original performance. We mistakenly believe that our memories are accurate and precise, and we cannot readily separate those aspects of our memory that accurately reflect what happened from those that were introduced later.” (Chabris & Simons, 2010, pp 62-63).
They detail with riveting stories continuity errors in movies, source memory errors (is it your memory or mine?), flashbulb memories, and false memories in a way that really drives home the point that our memories are not to be trusted as factual depictions of historical fact. They beg the question: Can you trust your memory?
The answer: Partially, but you must be aware that your memory is not immutable. It is erroneous to assume that your memories are factual and it is equally fallacious to presume that other’s memories are likewise infallible. Two people witnessing the same event from the same perspective are likely to recall the event differently because of their unique personal histories, capabilities, internal associations, and thus their unique internal cognitive associations, as they store into memory the bits and pieces of the event.
Isn’t it amazing and scary that we give so much credit and power to eye-witness testimony in the court of law? Such power is conferred based on the pervasive and deeply held belief in the accuracy of memory – which you must know by now is an illusion. This is just another example pertaining to the illusion of justice in this country.
On a more personal level, next time you and your significant other get into a debate about how some past event went down, you have to know that you both are probably wrong (and right) to some degree. There is your truth, their truth, and the real truth. These can be illustrated in a Venn Diagram with three circles that from time to time have various degrees of mutual overlap. We must admit that over time the real truth is likely to become a smaller piece of the story. This necessitates that we get comfortable with the reality that we don’t possess a DVR in our brains and that we part ways with yet another illusion of the importance and power of our uniquely human intuition.
Last week I discussed Philip Tetlock’s work that revealed the utter meaninglessness of punditry in The Illusion of Punditry. It is important to note that although professional pundits, on average, were less accurate than random chance, a few outliers actually performed well above average. Tetlock closely examined the variables associated with the distribution of accuracy scores and discovered that experts were often blinded by their preconceptions, essentially lead astray by how they think. To elucidate his point, Tetlock employed Isaiah Berlin’s famous metaphor, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin, a historian, drew inspiration for the title of this essay from a classical Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Berlin contended that there are two types of thinkers, hedgehogs and foxes. To make sense of this metaphor, one has to understand a bit about these creatures. A hedgehog is a small spiny mammal that when attacked rolls into a ball with its spines protruding outward. This response is its sole defensive maneuver, its “one big thing,” employed under any indication of threat. And by extension he suggested that hedgehog thinkers “… relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance…” The cunning fox survives by adapting from moment to moment by being flexible and employing survival strategies that make sense in the current situation. They “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, … their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects.”
John W. Dean, a former presidential counsel (for Richard Nixon), using the Berlin metaphor classified a number of US presidents as hedgehogs and foxes. In his column he wrote:
“With no fear of contradiction, Barack Obama can be described as a fox and George W. Bush as clearly a hedgehog. It is more difficult than I thought to describe all modern American presidents as either foxes or hedgehogs, but labeling FDR, JFK, and Clinton as foxes and LBJ and Reagan as hedgehogs is not likely to be contested. Less clear is how to categorize Truman, Nixon, Carter and Bush I. But Obama and Bush II are prototypical of these labels.”
Tetlock, in referring to pundit accuracy scores wrote that:
“Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.”
Tetlock was careful to point out that there was no correlation between political affiliation and either hedgehog or fox classification. But what he did note was that the most accurate pundits were foxes and that the key variable associated with their success was introspection. Those who studied their own decision making process, were open to dealing with dissonance, and those who were not blinded by their preconceptions were far more capable of making accurate predictions. Successful pundits were also cautious about their predictions and were inclined to take information from a wide variety of sources.
Hedgehogs on the other hand, were prone to certainty and grand “irrefutable” ideas. They tend to boil problems down to simple grand theories or conflicts (e.g., good versus evil, socialism versus capitalism, free markets versus government regulations, and so on) and view these big issues as being the driving force of history. They are prone to over simplify situations and miss the many and diverse issues that ultimately shape history. They instead are more likely to attribute historical changes to single great men with simple great ideas (e.g., Ronald Reagan was responsible for the fall of the USSR, and without his leadership the cold war may still be raging).
So what are you a hedgehog or a fox? Both thinking approaches have strengths and weaknesses and appropriate and less appropriate applications. What were Copernicus, da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin? When do you suppose it is good to be a hedgehog and when a fox? I suppose it comes down to the task at hand: big unifying issues such as gravity, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics may indeed necessitate hedgehog thinking. Here such single minded determinism is likely essential to persevere. Although, having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species I am inclined to think that Darwin was a fox. Da Vinci too, was likely a fox, considering the vastness of his contributions. And Galileo was similarly a broad thinker. Knowing little of Newton and Einstein, I care not to speculate. It seems to me with the specialization of science these days, one must be a hedgehog. Early science history is replete with foxes. I don’t know about you, but I have a romantic notion about the lifestyles of men like Galileo and Darwin, following their curiosities dabbling hither and yon.