Category Archives: Philosophy & Religion

Seashells: How we fool ourselves

SeaShells.pngYears ago, on one of my early morning walks, alone on a Jersey beach, I noticed something about the seashells in the sand. I noticed that my feet rarely hurt me because most of the shells were facing down, not up.

I decided to test my observation by choosing different spots scattered down the beach to count the shells.  I sampled the shells by standing on one foot and using the other to trace a large circle on the beach. I’d then count the number of shells in the circle and calculate the percent of upward facing shells. And sure enough, about 90% were upward facing in all my circles. It looked like I had discovered a physics principle.

I then wondered what sort of physics made this happen. So I gathered a bunch of shells, threw them in the air, and calculated the percentages in the same way. The ratio was much different – about 50/50. So then I put those shells in the retreating waves and watched them flip downward.  The percentage approached 90% again.  “It must be fluid mechanics,” I thought to myself.

“Fluid Mechanics” — hell, that almost sounds like I know what I am talking about, doesn’t it? But I still didn’t know and as I explored the issue further, I learned more about human nature than I did physics.

Very excited about my beach discovery, I began to tell friends and colleagues. Those patient enough to listen to my ramblings all thought they knew exactly why the shells flipped that way. “Yep, it is the water. It pulls on the shells, flipping them face down.” And they said this with certainty and a tone of voice which also said, “Isn’t it sort of obvious?”  But I had put hard work into my experimenting which they seemed to feel was a silly waste of time since the principle is so obvious.

So I decided to elaborate the experiment with an evil twist: I told a bunch of other folks the same story but this time I lied about the shells telling them that 90% of the shells were face up, not face down. And sure enough, the result was the same. Everyone proclaimed with certainty, “Well, it is obvious, the water pulls the shells like a bowl and makes them land face up.”

So, at this point, you’d think my learning here was that people are too quick to settle on a “just-so” theory, but my experiment revealed an even nastier insight.

So you’d hope that when I revealed to these listeners the trickery that they would laugh.  I hoped they’d see that I set up the story to reveal that our minds prefer to settle on a “just-so” quick explanations than really digging for the truth.  But no, they were angry.

After telling the fictitious story and letting the listener spin their cocky pseudo-scientific certainty, I revealed that I had lied so as to show how easily we were more interested in a quick explanations than a true explanations. But when I did so, people did not say, “Wow, that is fascinating!” but instead they were very upset at my deception and all the stuff the experiments revealed were lost.

We don’t want to know what our minds are doing.

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Guarding Weaknesses: Chinese & India

All people have in born genetic weaknesses — if lucky our deficiencies may never display themselves. And hopefully as our genetic sciences advance, we may be able to fix the coding errors that inevitably do harm us. Superstitious Chinese Taoists and Hindus astrologists also apply their best tools, against the wave of fate that hits us all.

Chinese fortune tellers tell us, as this article tells us, help parents to choose names for the children because the Chinese believe a person’s name defines their life.
“Taoists believe that depending on when someone was born, their body might lack one of the five elements — metal, wood, water, fire, or earth — which can affect their health. A fortuneteller can advise parents how to select a name that corrects this deficiency, for example by using a character that incorporates one of the elements. Some will even offer counsel on how many strokes should be in each character of the child’s name.”

Indian astrologers feel that not only do heavenly bodies affect our future, but that many of these harmful influences can be controlled by gems. So if a person has a planet that is inauspicious in their horoscope, they should wear the corresponding gem on the correct finger to ward off that malevolent influence. See this website helping your choose your lucky gems.

When in India, while riding trains, I discussed peoples’ rings with them because it always led to all sorts of stories about their lives. Likewise, while in China, discussing someone’s name, of revealed a lot about the person’s family history. All these were fascinating, and indeed can make our lives more colorful, but when it comes to our health fates, I’ll put my money on genetic science.

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Bad Luck in Driving Accidents

Accident CausesSome people are just unlucky and have accidents all the time. Or at least that is how they tell the story.  But there is a good reason to doubt such “bad luck” stories.

Working in medicine, I have met folks who have accidents over and over. Most of them tell a “woo-is-me” story and tell others “I am just really unlucky”. But were their many accidents just due to their bad luck, or is there something else involved besides “bad luck”?

My diagram to the right attempts to illustrate the role of your responsibility in your accidents. Sometimes diagrams simplify things, but I am not sure if they do here.  So, to get to the point: Most accidents are avoidable, even when they are NOT your fault.

Using the NHTSA’s 2008 National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NHTSA, 2008), I will add a lot of verbosity to elaborate the causes of your accidents :

Explaining the Top diagram:

At the risk of over simplifying, there are three possible causes of a traffic accident.
(1) You:
(2) Others
(3) The Environment or Vehicle:

Driver Causes (You and Others): pre-smartphone!

  • recognition error 40.6%:
    –Inadequate surveillance 20.3%
    –Internal distraction 10.7%
    –External distraction 3.8%
    –Inattention (i.e., daydreaming, etc.) 3.2%
    –Other/unknown recognition error 2.5%
  • performance error 10.3%
    –Overcompensation 4.9%
    –Poor directional control 4.7%
    –Other/unknown performance error 0.4%
    –Panic/freezing 0.3%
  • non-performance error 7.1%
    –Sleep, actually asleep3.2%
    –Heart attack or other physical impairment 2.4%
    –Other/unknown critical nonperformance 1.6%
  • decision error 6.2%
    –Too fast for conditions 8.4%
    –Too fast for curve 4.9%
    –False assumption of other’s action 4.5%
    –Illegal maneuver 3.8%
    –Misjudgment of gap or other’s speed 3.2%
    –Following too closely 1.5%
    –Aggressive driving behavior 1.5%
    –Other/unknown decision error

Vehicle Causes:

–Tires failed or degraded/wheels failed 43.3%
–Brakes failed/degraded 25.0%
–Other vehicle failure/deficiency 20.8%
–Steering/suspension/transmission/engine failed 10.5%
–Unknown 0.5%

Environmental Causes:

Roadway
–Slick roads (ice, loose debris, etc.) 49.6%
–View obstructions 11.6%
–Signs/signals 2.7%
–Road design 1.4%
–Other highway-related condition 9.8%

Atmospheric condition
–Fog/rain/snow 4.4%
–Other weather-related condition 4.0%
–Glare 16.4%

 

So looking at the top diagram again, most accidents are due to people, not the situation (environment or vehicle), but there are also the complex interactions between these three causes that can create your accident:

(A) You and the Situation’s: You were driving in an area that you knew could flood soon.
(B) You and Others: You were tailgating and they were tailgating when the car in front of you stopped quickly.
(C) Others and the Situation: A cop chases a speeder who jumps lanes and hits you.
(D) You, Others and The Situation : Perfect storm — You are tailgating a tailgater when flood waters suddenly hit the street.

As for the Bottom Diagram:

This illustrates which of the above causes you could have potentially avoided and thus escape an accident: You, Other Drivers, Situation (environment or vehicle). When viewing this, remember that stats show that some ninety percent of motor vehicle crashes are caused at least in part by human error.

(1) You: Yes, if you are the cause, you can avoid all those accidents
(2) Others: Yes, since others sometimes run stop lights, though you may have the right of way, look carefully before going through a green light. No, sure, if someone is going to jump lanes, short of trying to stay in the right lane and being aware, sometimes you can’t avoid this.
(3) Situation (Environment or Vehicle): You can avoid many situations, some you can’t.

Conclusion: People who have many accidents are usually not defensive drivers. Sure, they may not have been directly at fault in their accidents, but they could have avoided them. They could have stopped the causal chain. Luck? Nope! Our minds protect us from blame — maybe this reflexive blame-blocking is useful in persuasion but a very counterproductive reflex in avoiding traffic accidents.

 

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Luck, Luck, Luck

Those who assert that everything is predestined
still look before they cross the street.
–Stephen Hawking

Luck has been a theme of several of my posts. Why? I think people highly underestimate the role of luck in their lives. Below I list three articles I recently read which discuss some of that hidden luck.

1. Lucky Prime Ministers

Andrew Gimson recently wrote “Grimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May” and then in this article he discusses 12 traits of the British Prime Ministers he feels were successful — note, “luck” is number two. Courage, Luck, Hunger for power and more. Surprisingly, Donald Trump has many of these, including the luck of born into wealth. But the writer seems to be a British Conservative and so what he considers “successful” may be controversial. Nonetheless, Luck must always be considered.

2. Computer Proves Luck in Wealth

Rich people are often quick to tell you the exact reasons they are rich and seldom do they include “luck”. Instead, they tell us their financial success is either because they are bright, clever, talented, risk-taking, hard-working or in possession of some other virtue that most of us are missing. In they end, they feel they earned their wealth and deserve it.

Most of the human traits often given as the cause of financial success, are distributed in a normal distribution, but it seems that wealth is instead distributed in a power distribution (as I described in my previous post). This article discusses research headed by Alessandro Pluchino at the University of Catania in Italy that show us that luck is the biggest player in wealth. The group created a computer simulation of people randomly given bad or good luck events and shows the effect replicates the power laws which we see in the world where 20% of people on the planet controlling 80% of the wealth.

3. Lucky Investors

When things are going well, usually underestimate the role of luck in our personal lives. Financial investors ignore luck in their choices often. Study upon study has shown how random choice of stocks can often be as profitable as having an “expert” choosing stock.

This article by Morgan Housel defines “risk” and luck as mirrored cousins: “If risk is what happens when you make good decisions but end up with a bad outcome, luck is what happens when you make bad or mediocre decisions but end up with a great outcome.” Which I find a bit odd, but given those definitions, I agree with his conclusion that “experiencing risk makes you recognize that some stuff is out of your control, which is accurate feedback that helps you adjust your strategy. Experiencing luck doesn’t. It generates the opposite feedback: A false feeling that you are in control, because you did something and then got the outcome you wanted. Which is terrible feedback if you’re trying to make good, repeatable long-term decisions.”

One of his conclusion is that “Good investors attempt to quantify risk. They should do the same for luck.” I agree, and it holds for all of us.

 

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India’s Waste

00000066_IMG_0066I have lived twice in India, 1975 and 1980. On that first trip I was constantly amazed at how so many Indians freely defecated in the open.  I could hardly believe the squalor, so for five days I took pictures of the phenomena everywhere I went to show friends at home.  Three weeks after shooting that roll — yep, “roll”, it was back in the day — , I dropped it and two other rolls off at a local Indian developer. But on examining my returned photos a week later, I saw that at least 20 of my pics had been deleted with only the one toilet-shot, seen above, remaining — I ran into the pic today while going through old photos. So my thought back then and now was that the photoshop manager of that shop apparently wanted to hide this ugly truth about his own country.

Today, 43 years later, I still read article after article about this huge Indian problem. Here is a recent article in Nature called “Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India” — a very depressing story.  Nine years ago I wrote another post on India toilets where I discuss their wiping techniques — “How well do you wipe?”  Please take the survey there.

 

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Language, Religion & DNA: Fluid or Fixed

RNA, so one theory goes, came before DNA, but RNA was unstable and fluxing, so for survival sake it was only natural that DNA evolved — DNA is much more conservative, resisting change.  But RNA has persisted and the two are both synegistic and at time antagonistic.  I found this an interesting metaphor for a deeper underlying principle — fluidity vs flux.  We see fluidity vs flux also in language which then affects religion.  Written traditions (DNA) evolved from oral traditions (RNA).  Writing seems to have become a conservative tool in both language and then in religion. Prior to writing, languages were incredibly fluid with dialect proliferation.  Then came writing. With it, came prescriptionists in both language and religion.

Language:

Before written language, stories told around the fire, while cooking or staying warm, fluxed and changed.  There were as many versions of a story as their were villages or clans.  Then came writers who put the stories down on paper and story telling became a literary art and not a common folk art.  Oral traditions withered, as grammar and grammarians (prescriptionists) flourished.  All this came with benefits, of course, but also at a cost — written language was soon hijacked by the powerful as tool of control.

Dictionaries were part of that movement to freeze language.  France, then Italy and then eventually England made national organizations to freeze changes in language — to create a standardized language. But people are indomitable in their desire for freedom and languages keep changing, while prescriptionist and traditionalist try to freeze it.  This is almost like the relationship between DNA and RNA.  OK, perhaps a bit of a stretch, but let me continue.

Religion:

Myths came in all sorts of contradictory varieties. Look at Hinduism, the Ramayana is one of its main epic stories and even today, you can find at least 300 retellings, and as above, earlier, two or three thousand years ago, there were probably as many varieties as there were villages in India.

Listening to some Norse myths of late, and the same is true with Greek myths, I was not be surprised that contradictions exist in various forms of the same story, because stories were passed on by mouth, they were entertainment and not necessarily shooting for some truth, they were myths. But when people realized they could get other people to take written word more seriously, they began to look for one story – one version, and creativity suffered.

Look at Christianity, for instance. When it first began, there were a huge variety of Christianities: some had Jesus as merely a man, some as a full blown god, some had heaven and hell, some only had a heaven and no hell (universalism), and some had reincarnation. Writing already existed at that time, but prescriptionists tried to ban the books of the Christinities that compete with their own favorite flavor. Constantine converted to Christianity and he didn’t care which flavor ruled his empire, he just wanted a unifying religion and so he got a group of Bishops (power holders already) to vote on their favorite Christian doctrines and then they set about burning and destroying all those who were voted down. This was all made easy with printed word. What was written began to be used as a standard, a way to lock down political truths — for certainly they weren’t truths about real things.

Similar links:  It is funny to find that I write the same sort of stuff over and over.  After writing the above today, I found this post today: “Oral Tradition & Locked Myths“.

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More Fun than Winning

When I play WeiQi (a board game), instead of focusing on winning I sometimes focus on experimenting, being creative, messing around and other things that cause me to loose the game because I have learned that winning is not always in my best interests.

Our brains often demand that we do painful things because our genes don’t care about our happiness, but instead that we reproduce successfully. So our genes have made a brain that drives us to acquire things to attack mates and attract material and social security.   And often, for the long run, that may be useful.  But to the brain happiness is secondary and “the joy of winning” is one of our brains tricks to give us security and children. We don’t know our brain’s agenda’s, it hides them from us., but it gives us clear signals when we fulfill its agendas — pleasure via neurotransmitters. That is why winning feels so damn good.

The problem is, sometimes our addiction to winning can cause us other problems that lead to slow deterioration in our health and deterioration of our minds and thus greater unhappiness. But on our roads to a narrow existence of tightness and self-deception, we get may get our temporary happy victories and perhaps a few sexual partners while our brains gives us joy-kicks.

Our brains also love when we win arguments — arguments with others and arguments with ourselves. It matters not if the arguments are manipulative or distracting or full of lies, they just feel good when we win, and so, over time, we begin to value the win more than the truth. But with discipline we can pause, and hijack our brains. We don’t have to be captive to the rewards of evolution. But it takes effort and time to develop an inner culture that values happiness and connections over victory.

The trick is to balance winning and deeper happiness. We don’t need to be captivated by our brains, we can say no at times to simple victories. But it is tough — because the enemy is ourselves.

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