Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Calling out the Symbol Rulers

Korzybski told us that "those who rule the symbols rule us." In the upcoming issue of ETC, we present a new feature, "Calling out the Symbol Rulers," in which we hope to provide ongoing information of use in evaluating and challenging the statements of our rulers. Here's one contribution to that effort.
In the past few years, we have seen a huge blossoming of both "citizen journalists" and funded on-screen and on-line commentators, each with an opinion and a story to tell. Between the changes in media ownerships laws and the ever-widening use of the Internet and camera-cell phones, we get a lot of news about the source of which we know very little. Whose reports do we believe?

Enter Disinfopedia. Based on the uniquely Internet-based web page mechanism known as "wiki", this site evaluates media campaigns and invites readers to join in the effort. The introduction states that the site started as "a collaborative project to produce a directory of public relations firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations and industry-friendly experts that work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of corporations, governments and special interests."

In keeping with the wiki philosophy, anyone who views a page can also edit it. Wikis manage this potentially chaotic feature by self-government. A community of dedicated participants monitor changes to the site and reverse or flag those that appear malicious, capricious or just plain incorrect. But this doesn't amount to censorship, exactly, because both a change to a page and its correction remain available to anyone interested enough to view the page's history.

The site offers not only reviews of political statements and media campaigns, it also provides tutorials on how to evaluate such statements and research their underpinnings. This link- and information-rich site belongs on your favorites list.

Friday, December 17, 2004

GS in the News

Charley Reese, syndicated columnist for King Publications, has published a very nice, concise summary of general semantics and the value of applying it to daily language. He offers some examples drawn from today's headlines:

The important thing to remember is that the word is not the thing itself. People who confuse words with reality are said to suffer from a belief in word magic. Words actually produce no effect whatsoever on reality. They are just arbitrary symbols we use for the purpose of communication. ...To say that a country is a "terrorist state" does not prove that it is.
I hear people say that Arab textbooks teach anti-Semitism. Have they ever seen an Arab textbook? No. Do they read Arabic? No. Then what they are really saying is that somebody else told them that Arab textbooks teach anti-Semitism.
If you want more information about this interesting and useful method for clarifying your thinking and understanding of the world, visit the Institute for General Semantics.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

War Words

How can any war be termed noble? In war, one set of humans kills another, sometimes brutally. In any other situation, we call that murder. But somehow, when the entity directing the killing is a country, we accept the same act as "necessary" or "good" or even "approved by god."

Sometimes war is waged in order to show valor; a person who imagines a justification for commiting institutionalized murder can claim inner dignity, and this dignity somehow transfers to war itself. Some philosophers have even praised war as an ennoblement of humanity, forgetting the pronouncement of the Greek who said, "War is an evil in as much as it produces more wicked men than it takes away." -Immanuel Kant, philosopher (1724-1804)

I believe that as long as we glorify war, we will continue to forget the insanity of it. Young men and women generally go to war for the first time in their late teens or early twenties. At this age, I have observed, we seem to form our most significant impressions, opinions and memories. The intense and deeply felt camaradery of battle, similar to the first moments of parenthood, the discovery of a new philosophy or any other unfamiliar but essential event, seems to burn into the circuitry of our personalities. From that time on, we define ourselves by our behavior during the event, and judge the emotional content of all other events by it. Anyone who has listened to a World War II vet talking about Pearl Harbor or on D-Day will understand how vital and immediate the experience is for him. Once I heard a vet say that no experience since his war days ever thrilled him to the same extent.

I suspect that the people who arrange for wars, based on their own ideas of personal or national aggrandizement or security, depend on young men and women wanting just exactly this kind of emotional commitment to war. If you only sent mature adults to war, they would put down their guns and walk home as soon as they recognized who stood to gain from the war (the leaders) and who stood to lose (themselves). Adults can make these judgements.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A Man after my Own Heart

I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.
-Steven Wright, comedian (1955- )

Monday, July 05, 2004

Heisenberg on the Autobahn

We would all agree, I think, that what you know about a situation can change how you act in that situation. Can what you know about a situation change the situation itself? German research scientists have developed a next-generation, highly accurate model of traffic on the Autobahn, but it may become a victim of its own success.

This model differs from previous versions by attempting to model "realistic" driver behavior and "realistic" physical aspects of cars. Previous versions permitted "infinite deceleration," meaning they assumed that cars could stop instantly without slowing down first. The new model requires deceleration and acceleration, which allows them to better predict the bottlenecks that lead to jams. The program also models more precisely the behavior of real drivers, some of whom drive more aggressively and some more defensively.

Not too surprisingly, this effort to more closely match the structure of the model to the structure of the real world portrayed by the model has paid off with much more accurate predictions of trouble, up to an hour before the jam stops traffic. But where does Heisenberg step in?

The model's predictions show up on a website with a 90% accuracy rate for likely trouble up to an hour in advance. Smart drivers have started consulting the site before leaving home and changing their behavior in response, so many in fact, that the accuracy of the predictions has begun to slide. Modellers worry that once the data becomes available on cellphones, things will get even worse. They hope to address this Heisenbergian backlash by reducing the amount of information available, in hopes of diversifying drivers' adaptive strategies.

New Scientist

Saturday, July 03, 2004


Real courage is risking one's cliches.
--Tom Robbins (1936-) author

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


A devout atheist would say, take your attention out of the unknown, out of the heavens. Turn it instead with full concentration on your own life, your own experience. The faith of an atheist is the remarkable notion that this is enough. What we see with our eyes, and touch with our skin, and know with our minds, and live with our lives must be enough. This human existence must redeem itself, must bless itself, must create itself. The faith of an atheist is not a faith in god, but in life itself. That is faith.

-Rev. Darcey Laine, Unitarian-Universalist minister

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Everyone wishes to have truth on his side, but not everyone wishes to be on the side of truth.
-Richard Whately, philosopher, reformer, theologian, economist (1787-1863)

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin, American printer, writer, politician, diplomat, and scientist (1706-1790)

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Drug(1) "is not" Drug(2)

What does we mean when we say that two things "are the same"?

In the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry, the company that owns the patent makes the bucks. But patents don't last forever and when they expire, other companies acquire the right to make "generic" copies of the drug to sell in competition with the patent holder. To get approved, generics manufacturers mostly need to show that their drugs "are the same as" the original patented chemical--the same chemical structure implies the same efficacy and safety. That's how the drug industry works.

As with so many other standard practices of industry today, this may soon change, with billions hanging in the balance. A new class of drugs, known as biopharmaceuticals will soon reach the end of their patent protection, when competitors can start making generic alternatives. A regulatory discussion has erupted around these "biogenerics" concerning the issue of "same"-ness.

As this article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune reports, the biopharmaceutical process starts with an individual living cell's genetic material and ends with a flotilla of clone cells pumping out the target molecule under extremely controlled conditions. The generic process necessarily varies from the original at the very start, since they cannot begin with same first cell.

So drug(1) is not drug(2). Does it matter? How much "samenss" can we expect (knowing that we can never call two things "identical"), and how much difference can we tolerate before determining that the generic might not perform like the original?

Heisenberg in Action

This report in The Scientist presents a cautionary tale about the potential effect of the observer on the observed.

A team of scientists from several countries around the world tracked the activities of penguins that had identification bands on their flippers, and compared their behavior and breeding success with penguins that had no such bands. The stunning results--the banded birds arrived up to 3 weeks later at breeding sites and produced 50% fewer chicks. Given the nearly universal reliance on banding as a form of research identification, this study could have a dramatic effect on future wildlife studies. It also calls into question the conclusions drawn in past studies where behavorial or biological data depended on banding or similar identification practices.

"Ecologists are realizing that we can't take the effects of our manipulations for granted--we're studying living organisms in natural systems, not a beaker in a lab," said James Cahill of the University of Alberta, Edmonton. In 2001, Cahill found that by handling the plants in his experiments, he changed the amount that herbivores ate them.

The penguin study "has enormous implications for long-term studies, and for those focused studies where people want to know where every individual is," said Cahill, who was not involved in the study. "This is the type of news that most scientists don't want to hear."

In part, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle suggests that "mere" observation of an event can affect the outcome of that event. "Common sense" might object that observation does not require contact, so how can it have an effect? This, of course, excludes the scientific fact that all observation involves some kind of transmission--light, sound, the passing of an x-ray, the handling of a detector, etc. "Common sense" rarely operates scientifically.

(It occurs to me that "affecting the outcome through observation" may have as much to do with changing our perception as it does with "actually" affecting the "out-there" events. To observe something, we must classify, categorize, and reify certain aspects. Philosophically, you might say we "will" an "object" into existence by somewhat arbitrarily discerning an edge or distinguishing pieces of a process. I recall a story about some remote tribe that, when tested, lumped together as "the same color" a large variety of shades English speakers might call "rose, pink, orange, magenta, maroon, etc". As humans, they probably use the same physical mechanism for observing color as English speakers. Would more concerted study by a linguistic pioneer among them "create" more colors? Yes, and no....)

Fortunately, even though "most scientists don't want to hear" evidence about the direct effects of observation on the observed, the nature of scientific research gives some hope that observers will make an effort to adjust to it, rather than rejecting it. Real success in science depends on adapting theory to fact, not the other way round.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

More on Learning to Read

Here's another article, this time by Sarah McGinnis of the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal, on that most curious of teaching practices, the "whole word" method of reading education. There have appeared on the horizon some hopeful signs that the proponents of this irrational approach have begun to give way to something more enlightened, if not new.

Korzybski recommended that we make every effort to align our thinking and speaking with the structure of the subject about which we want to think and speak. In the case of reading, if we would teach children to read any word they encounter, we must first acknowledge the nature of words and how they develop. Very few words came into existence in their current form and with a single sense and sound. Instead, most words evolved from simple basic sounds and individual kernels of meaning.

To learn to read language, you can either try to memorize thousands of words with no understanding of their lineage, or you can learn the bones of the language and thereby learn to decode the unfamiliar whole by recognizing the known pieces. Thus when a reader comes across a word such as "television" as a whole word reader, they must know the word or guess at it from context. As a phonetic reader, they can likely detect the building blocks of "tele" and "vision" and at least pronounce the word, and probably figure out the meaning as well.

Which makes more sense to you? If I may paraphrase--give a child a word and he can read that word. Teach a child how to decipher words, and he can read anything.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.
-Heraclitus, philosopher (c. 540-470 BCE)

Monday, March 01, 2004


The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.
-William Makepeace Thackeray, novelist (1811-1863)

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Facing Facts, or Not

Health Day News reports the findings of Australian cancer researcher Penelope Schofield in an article titled "Optimism Doesn't Prolong Lung Cancer Patients' Survival". The study found that lung cancer patients died at about the same rates within about the same periods regardless of their rating on a test of attitude and level of optimism. In fact, the research suggests that placing too high an importance on the patient's optimism may add to their overall emotional burden.

While I find these results of interest, what comes next in the article struck me as a glaring example of how much most people resist factual evidence when it contradicts their hopes and beliefs. The researcher "is quick to add" that her study focused only on lung cancer, a notoriously deadly disease, and that patients with other more treatable cancers might well benefit from a more positive attitude.

Following that comes this sentence:

What's more, the findings shouldn't prompt lung cancer patients to give up hope, American cancer experts say, because keeping faith often enhances a patient's quality of life.

To me, this statement directly contradicts the results of the study. I think the article included the sentence because somebody, the author or the editors or management at HealthDay, felt a need to soften the facts of the study with some totally unwarranted optimism of their own.

In ancient Greece, hope dwelled in Pandora's box of evils and remained behind when all the other evils escaped. Many view this with a Westerner's conception of hope, as something that gives strength and enables triumph. That hope remained in the box meant that we can as humans use it to triumph over the evils at large in the world. The Greeks, by contrast, considered hope the ultimate evil, because it blinds us to the reality of our situations and prevents us from taking the steps necessary to meet the demands life puts on us.

I admit that I find this interpretation of hope quite appealing. Having helped two of my dearest family members through the process of dying from lung cancer, I feel somewhat qualified to assess the effects of pressure for optimism on the patient's mental state. I found my loved ones most peaceful and lucid when they felt most free to express their comprehension of impending death. In each case, we came to a moment when they said in effect, "I know I will die soon and I accept it." In that moment, we all, patient and family alike, found a comfort that hope could never provide.

It seems to me that those who believe in an afterlife fear death most intensely. I always wonder--if heaven promises so much, why resist the necessary step through the door? On the other hand, people who have found no reason to assume that anything survives death seem to have the easiest time letting go. In my experience.

What Do You Know, and How Do You Know It?

In this interesting article by the "Public Editor" at the New York Times, Daniel Okrent, the author provides a newspaper journalist's assessment of the journalistic behavior of a magazine writer. The magazine article, by Peter Landesman, writing for the Times Magazine, exposed an apparent epidemic of sex slavery trafficking in New Jersey, California and other states around the country. When it appeared in the magazine last month, the article generated a wave of skepticism and outcry from readers and other journalists alike, for its extreme conclusions and inflammatory language.

In his critique of the article and its writer, Okrent starts with an elegant demonstration how two people can "accurately" describe the same scene with completely different "facts". The rest of the article focuses more on the different standards on fact-checking generally accepted by newpaper and magazine journalists. He shows that how a journalist feels about an issue can directly influence the tone of the resulting article and more importantly, the depth of the research on which the article rests.

I found the article a valuable analysis of how journalism works, but also found Okrent's emphasis on the effect of the personal on the professional quite illuminating and relevant to gs concerns.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


In science it often happens that scientists say, "You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken," and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
-Carl Sagan, astronomer and writer (1934-1996)

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; Some blunders and absurdities crept in; Forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer and philosopher (1803-1882)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

The Noun--Mightier than the Sword?

Whatever you may feel about the issues between Israelis and Arabs, I believe you will find this article from the Jerusalem Post interesting. The author, Lewis Glinert, discusses the subtle but powerful connotations that words carry and how the choice of one term over another can draw listeners opinion in a particular direction without them necessarily perceiving the effect.

Of course, every word uttered creates the possibility for misunderstanding, or worse still, understanding of only what the speaker wishes to reveal. Since, as we in the gs world contend, words don't "carry" meaning but rather trigger it in the listener, one can never guarantee that the "same" meaning will occur to the listener as to the speaker. Trying to maintain awareness of the possible problems can help, but I suggest that we must do more if we want to improve our ability to withstand efforts to influence our opinions.

Recently I started reading George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By". Lakoff identifies a number of fundamental language concepts that color everyday language and yet remain unknown or unacknowledged by most speakers. Even more striking to me, Lakoff verbalizes these metaphors in the simplest of language--"Better is UP" "Less is DOWN" "Argument is WAR" etc etc. These nearly universal metaphors (at least within a given culture) subtly but inexorably determine which words "work" and which fail to appeal. For example, one cannot expect much success with a phrase like "Small is beautiful" when talking about growth and progress. This contradicts our unspoken metaphor that "More is UP" plus "Better is UP".

With this new perspective in mind, we can evaluate both the arguments others present and the words they choose to express their arguments. This may give us some better chance at reacting rationally rather than reflexively.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

I Think You Think, Therefore I Think You Are

Korzybski often condemned unthinking human behavior as animal-like, advising his readers of methods to rise above such reflexive, automatic reactions. The issue of how humans differ from animals can become contentious, especially with people who believe that all living beings have more intelligence than commonly assumed.

In a gs seminar I attended a few years back, one of the attendees became quite offended at the statement "Humans are the only species capable communicating abstract thoughts" or words to that effect. She argued that other species might very well have complex mental lives but just choose not reveal their communications to humans.

This article from New Scientist might have helped her to understand the difference between our brains and language behavior and that of all other species. The research described in the article attempted to determine the ability of monkeys to detect variations in human speech patterns. While the study showed that the monkeys could recognize a simple rule of variation, they missed more complicated ones that required the skill of recursion.

From Wikipedia: "Recursion is a way of specifying a process by means of itself." In human behavior, recursion refers to, among other things, our ability to have abstract thoughts, to conceive of someone else's abstract thoughts, and to describe a pattern in terms of the pattern we want to describe. The researchers Fitch and Hauser showed that monkeys lack the ability to logically detect a complex language pattern, and suggest that this lack has as much to do with their inability to use language as does their frequently referenced physical limitations.

New Scientist

Monday, January 05, 2004

Filling the Gap

Previously, I reported on research concerning the use of "like" in modern speech, in which the researcher determined that this much-maligned "filler" word actually had a number of specific and generally accepted meanings. Prior to this research, most English teachers would have told you that the use of "like" in any manner other than "to have affection for" or "similar to" amounts to carrying a sign that you have no brains at all. (Many probably still feel that way.) Further pollute your language with "um" and "uh" as well, and you might as well forget about getting on in the serious adult world.

However, in this article from the NY Times, Michael Erard reports on other recent linguistic studies that have somewhat exonerated this lowly class of words called "fillers". Some researchers have even detected specific purposes and conversational meaning for each type of filler. One researcher found that nearly every language has such words, although they vary in sound, and they perform much the same purpose wherever they appear.

Another interesting fact appears in the article. In the process of trying to improve the efficiency of therapeutic conversations with patients, one psychologist determined that up to 50% of all speech consists of silence. That's one to ponder....

Think Tank: Just Like, Er, Words, Not, Um, Throwaways