Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Critical Thinking?

I have not posted here since well before the election, and now we have a new president, one who speaks frankly and humanely, who apparently favors the "reality-based" approach to life. We teetered for a while on the possibility of having new leaders who exhibited their poor thinking skills in myriad ways.

Dick Cavett, long-time laser-like observer of the human condition, continues to marvel at the bizarre and disturbing following acquired by the defeated Republican candidate for vice-president. His articles on the subject draw flocks of commentors, some simply thanking Cavett for his wit and insight, others offering answers to his requests for help deciphering the inexplicable appeal of the woman. As one might expect, his readers in many cases write almost as articulately as he does and their answers sometimes come from unexpected angles.

The article on the NY Times website sports 15, count 'em, 15 pages of comments--all posted in a single day! Two of these, I think, will suffice here. Joel writes:

Her supporters love Mrs. Palin for advertising her mediocrity as a virtue. That perspective allows them to dismiss nuance, complexity and tolerance as partisan tactics.

And Richard observes:
Palin’s patter derives from her most extensive area of training: teen beauty pagent contestant.

A contestant is given 90 seconds to respond to a panel’s question. She prepares (is more likely is prepped) by assembling stock answers for rapid delivery.
Stock answers are crammed with words and concepts designed to overwhelm the questioners. As the latter are not a PhD panel, the range of acceptable and even “impressive” blurted replies is large.

Palin is captive of that speaking style. It would require psychoanalysis to shift her away from going into overdrive when questioned on a subject of any complexity.

Completely different in their perspective, but incisive in their application. We could use more critical thinkers like THAT in the government. Let's go find more graduates of the schools that produced THEM.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Terry Pratchett: I'm slipping away a bit at a time... and all I can do is watch it happen | Mail Online

Author Terry Pratchett writes about his experiences with PCA alzheimer's with moving frankness. Because his rare form of Alzheimer's largely focuses on the loss of physical skills, he remains articulate and reasoned in his view. He strikes an important blow for cognitive accuracy in facing the world as it is and not as we wish it could be.

It is a strange life when you ‘come out’. People get embarrassed, lower their voices, get lost for words. Part of the report I’m helping to launch today reveals that 50 per cent of Britons think there is a stigma surrounding dementia. Only 25 per cent think there is still a stigma associated with cancer.

The stories in the report - of people being told they were too young or intelligent to have dementia; of neighbours crossing the street and friends abandoning them - are like something from a horror novel.

We can't find a cure for something we are afraid to talk about, right?

Pratchett's article seems to me like it could come straight out of a coursebook on cognitive accuracy:
What is needed is will and determination. The first step is to talk openly about dementia because it’s a fact, well enshrined in folklore, that if we are to kill the demon then first we have to say its name.

Pratchett has given $1 million pounds to help push research on Alzheimer's forward, and to break through the superstitious prejudice that most people still feel about this very physical disease.

To see the full report, Dementia: Out Of The Shadows go to, or the Alzheimer’s Research Trust

Friday, October 03, 2008

Two words

Two simple words can end many a pointless argument: "to me". Consider Benjamin Franklin's observation:

Many a long dispute among divines may be thus abridged: It is so. It is not so. It is so. It is not so.

Imagine it recast with "to me":
It is so, to me. It is not so, to me......okay, let's go have a beer.

In my youth, my well-educated, Catholic family used a lot of Latin in normal conversation. One phrase stuck with me and blossomed much later when I learned more about "to me" and general relativity:
De gustibus non disputandum.

"In matters of taste, we cannot dispute." In other words, if you add "to me", you change from making a statement that others can challenge ("butter is good") to one they cannot challenge ("I consider butter delicious and healthful.") They may NOT consider butter delicious or healthful, but you didn't say THAT, you said YOU CONSIDER it so. To disagree with that, they would have to be inside your head, and they are not. They can only take your word on the validity of the statement--only YOU know if you actually consider butter delicious.

Applying this to your reactions to others offers an equally agreeable respite: if you simply add, out loud or sotto voce, "to you" whenever someone states their opinion as fact, you can simply accept their statement as one about their "state of mind" and moderate your reaction. You may disagree with the view they appear to hold, but you have no reason or motivation to disagree that they hold it. This can greatly reduce stress in otherwise stressful interactions.

Or so it seems, to me. ;-)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who do you think you "are"?

Paul Newman died today. I read some quotes from interviews he did and once really stuck out:

The light that you think you emanate is not necessarily the light that other people see.

At times like this, I realize that most of the valuable notions in general semantics do not represent radical, unheard of perspectives that no one ever thought before, although perhaps no one had ever pulled the ideas together and systematized them as Korzybski did.

Newman lived a highly challenging, varied life full of opportunities and advantages. This quote clearly says, to me, that no matter who YOU think you are, others see you differently.

We know this because we understand non-identity and to-me-ness and all the other gs formulations.

I think he knew this because he had the good sense to learn from his experiences, and apparently he learned the wisdom of relativity.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Why truth "is" never "true"

Today I happened across this quote from Ernest Hemingway:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.

On the face of it, I think he means that a good story says something we can all relate to. Fine.

But it then occurred to me to ask why fiction accomplishes that better than non-fiction. And the answer jumped out at me: fiction can leave out all the stuff that makes things gray and imprecise and ambiguous.

So what does that say about "truth"? I think it says that "truth is what you get when you leave out the stuff that doesn't quite fit." In other words, when you dial the gray areas into black and white, then you have something you can make a solid decision about: black bad, white good. Which might explain why we find it so hard to pin down "truth" and why we argue about it so much.

In Levels of Knowing and Existence, Harry Weinberg devotes a whole chapter to discussing beauty. In a "beautiful" example of clear and unequivocal logic, he shows that the quest for "beauty" cannot possibly succeed, because "it" doesn't exist. He describes how we apply the word "beauty" to wildly disparate experiences for wildly different reasons, and says, in effect, that we use the word "beauty" when we experience a range of feelings, triggered by a range of experiences, but that no thing exists that we can call "beauty". I recall thinking at the time, that beauty is kind of like your "lap" or your "voice": it only "exists" while you are "using" it, because it has more to do with a moment and a process.

"Truth" falls into the same category: something can only "be true" as long as we narrow the object to something specific, for a particular person, for a particular time. No "thing" exists that we can call "truth". Only by a quirk of language does the word qualify as a noun, which tricks us into believing that it must, like other nouns, "exist" "out there".

In GS, we try to address this problem by "dating" and "indexing": "this is true at this time for this purpose" for example. But does that really address the problem? It still implies a certain amount of noun-ness, as I see it. We might do better to craft a new form of word, something that embodies "observer's semantic reacting".

Stephen Colbert's lovely coinage, "truthiness", comes close, by incorporating the inherent subjectivity of an observation of "truth" as seen in this definition from Wikipedia:
Truthiness is a word that U.S. television comedian Stephen Colbert popularized in 2005 as a satirical term to describe things that a person claims to know intuitively or "from the gut" without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
Granted some things seem to evoke the reaction of "truth" more reliably than others, but when every such event involves dimensions of perspective, time, and context, I don't see any "there" there that all people would agree on for all times and purposes.

So, in effect, "truth" is never "true", it only kind of "feels" or "seems" "true" "for now" "to me". Or so it seems, to me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

What Does It Mean To Be Alive?

Science Daily reports on a study that suggests that "knowledge is shaped by language." The study compared children who speak English with children who speak Indonesian, specifically in terms of how they classify things as "alive."

In English, the word "animal" can sometimes refer to all living beings, including humans, while at other times it refers only to non-human living beings. In Indonesian, the equivalent word unambiguously excludes humans. In the study, the two groups of children identified pictures of things as "alive" or not. Indonesian children easily included plants and animals in the "alive" group, while English-speaking children even up to age 9 often excluded plants. The researchers concluded that

"understanding the conceptual consequences of language differences will serve as an effective tool in our efforts to advance the educational needs of children."
"Conceptual consequences of language differences...." Where have I heard something like that before? Oh yeah, Sapir Whorf, anybody?

The Gentle Art of Deconstruction

Tempting times reveal a richness of language
Author Ruth Wajnryb, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, pauses to savor how a little other-awareness can make a simple email message seem like a rich exchange of meaning. We get to listen in as she contemplates how much more a person can say simply by sharing words with a sympathetic friend. Along the way, she also provides an admirable model of self-awareness.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Defender of Language Freedom Coagulates

George Carlin died Sunday, June 22, 2008, at age 71.

A brilliant observer of human nature and an unblinking realist, Carlin's humor cut through all the bullshit that we humans like to believe about ourselves and reminded us that, at base, we are just more dust in a very dusty universe. His insistence on the right to say anything, anytime, anywhere, took his work all the way to the Supreme Court, who judged the noises he made as "indecent." How wonderful that he lived long enough to deliver those glorious, unfettered cable performances with way more than seven "dirty words"!

And how lucky we all are to have his many records and performance to study. A person could learn an awful lot about general semantics from this man who established, unequivocally that "the word is not the thing" (in all senses of the word! ;-)

From George himself, this epitaph: "Weather forecast for tonight: dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning."

Morning light will be a little harder to come by for a while.

Goodbye, GC.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I admit I don't know much about CP Snow, but I find significance in this quote by him, which I came across today:

"It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience;they are rather like the tone deaf from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it."
- CP Snow (Writer)
Over the years, I have heard a number of people claim that hearing about or learning the science behind some wondrous phenomenon "takes all the mystery out of it", or "robs the event of its beauty" or "brings it down to heartless, cold facts."

Baloney! This quote by Snow gives me a new answer for future such moments--no, no, I can say, science adds the glorious soundtrack to the movie of life! If you learn *how* this thing happened, you ADD a dimension to the wonder you feel when you see it.

I have seen this subject covered elsewhere, of course, including in an excellent and moving article by Ann Druyan, widow of the late, great scientist and writer, Carl Sagan. The article first appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, and I had the privilege of reprinting it in ETC in January, 2006.

On further research, I find that Snow stirred up the academic world, at least in England, with a lecture in 1959 on this very subject, titled Two Cultures. This excerpt appears on the Wikipedia page for Snow:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the law of entropy. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: 'Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?'

I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, 'Can you read?' — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.
This harmonizes nicely with something my friend, Ed Bailey, said to me in an email yesterday:
In court a judge will tell you real quick "ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating them."

Why is ignorance of the laws of science such a widely accepted excuse for violating them?
Why indeed?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 3

Learning happens all the time. How do we drive the right kind of learning?

1. Learning can only occur when we are in the right "mood".

We must be engaged in the task in order to trigger plasticity.

2. Change strengthens connections between neurons that are activated at the same time.

Things that happen together "go together" in our brains. Practice makes perfect by saving a combination of connections that "work" while casting off those that don't.

3. Neurons that fire together wire together. Components of activity that occur at the same time create connections. Visual input coordinates with memory and sound and balance, etc.

When we think of "farm", it activates a constellation of related ideas.

4. Initial changes are just temporary. If the outcome of an event is evaluated as good or important, we convert the memory to long-term. Doesn't have to be dramatic. It can also happen through repetition.

5. Brain plasticity is a two-way street. We can drive positively or negatively. Chronic pain and bad habits are plasticity in action. A malleable brain is a vulnerable brain.

6. Memory is crucial to learning. The model of what we want to do is held in memory and as we act, we evaluate the outcome against the model.

7. Motivation is a key factor in brain plasticity. Wanting to improve or master a skill makes the learning more likely and successful. The story of Pedro Bach-y-Rita recovering from a stroke gave insight into how the brain reorganizes and refines.

If we don't learn, we become boring. We seek comfort instead of novelty.

To learn, your heart must be healthy. The task should be challenging, but not too difficult.

Neuroplasticity is the default mode of the brain. We just need to take advantage of it by staying active and interested.

It's about living to the very end of life. More than half of us by age 85 can no longer maintain our independence and may be "non compos mentis".

Be encouraged to know that if you exercise your brain in the right ways, you will feel better and retain your vitality and independence.

Overall, I found this an accurate and informative program. They focused on general accepted aspects of current theory and explain most of them with clarity, if a bit simply. I'm a bit ambivalent about the "Fitness Gym" that the show promotes, mainly because I think one would get better effect from simply having lots of interests and pursuing them. One thinks of the writer or artist or musician who remains sharp, active and fully competent long past 85. But certainly for those who have not necessarily lived a very active mental life, a "gym" to regain the necessary skills probably makes good sense.

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 2

The typical 30-year-old commands about 30,000 words. At 80, it's more like 10,000. But understanding brain plasticity can help us forestall some of that degeneration. It doesn't seem so much due to loss of neurons, as to loss of synapses and myelin, the covering on neurons that insulates them.

As we get older, the speed with which we think does slow down. If you then introduce distractors, you could look like you are having trouble: drinks, noise, anxiety, etc.

Older people have a fear of falling. Falling has more to do with brain decline than muscle loss. But when we worry about falling, we do things that contribute--we watch our feet, actually teaching our brain to use our eyes for balance instead of our ears. This is negative plasticity. If we repeat any behavior enough, the path becomes a "rut". One researcher used cognitive therapy with OCD people, telling them to ignore their burdensome compulsive thoughts and view them as "just my brain, not real." This mindful attention improved these patients as well as another group who got standard OCD drugs.

Attention improves our ability to change the brain. We learn what we attend to, and the more mindfully we do that, the better we do. But we also have to attend to new things in order to keep the brain growing and learning. Attending to the same old stuff doesn't contribute to learning. The effort should result in the release of neurochemicals that reward us for the effort. We feel better and have a "brighter" life. Routine tasks don't trigger the same rewards, and don't accomplish neuronal growth. It has to be new and challenging and interesting. We do get some comfort from the familiar stuff, but as we do, we lose the increased enjoyment that we get from learning new tasks.

One of the critical aspects of learning is memory, and the place essential to memory is the hippocampus. Loss in this area results in the inability to form new memories.

Brain-change--harnessing the potential of plasticity:

The show tells the story of a soldier who received a traumatic brain injury. Roger Taub discovered that you can challenge the patient's brain with specialized tasks and regrow some of the lost skills. This depends on neuroplasticity.

Concept of brain-span vs life-span. Plasticity allows the age of the brain to differ from the age of the body.

Another station break.

Brain Fitness Program -- Part 1

Tonight I'm watching The Brain Fitness Program on Public Television, hosted by Peter Coyote. The first segment focuses on brain plasticity. Despite what we have traditionally believed, we continue to build brain neurons and connections far into adulthood. One expert suggests that the old belief came from a backwards assumption that since the brain is so complex, it wouldn't make sense that we might just "throw more wires in there." Research appears to say that neurogenesis can be sustained or ramped up by *physical* activity--running or swimming, for example. Of course, some mental activities can keep things growing and connecting as well.

Children with cleft palates were believed to have "inherited" an inability to learn to speak. A surgeon discovered that if you fix the cleft palate, they learn like "normal" children. Turns out the cleft palate blocked their hearing so they couldn't learn to speak because they had an inadequate model. Fix their hearing and they learn language.

Brain injuries can sometimes result in reassignment of other regions to take over the tasks of the injured part. And regions responsible for tasks that we perform excessively can actually expand.

Our experiences create new synapse and strengthen existing synapses. Donald Hebb showed that neurons are co-strengthened when they co-respond (neurons that fire together, wire together.)

The next segment moves on to discuss the technology that reveals all this neuronal activity. Functional MRIs allow researchers to watch the brain as it actually perform tasks. This technology also tracks the flow of blood, which suggests which parts of the brain are active during a given task.

Changes that come about when we think new thoughts or perform tasks are what the brain was designed to do.

Pause for a station break. Give money to Public Television to keep shows like this on the air.....

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Old but worth rereading

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., jurist (1841-1935)

If I haven't quoted this here before, I've certainly quoted it elsewhere. For many years, I had it on my bulletin board at work, in the permanent corner, where I kept things that meant so much I consider them worth seeing every day.

To me this sums up a large chunk of what I believe about the world: context and purpose determine meaning, and each of us has a different context and a different purpose, so each of us develops our own meaning.

It's a wonder we ever communicate at all!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Looking for Something New

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.
-George Santayana, philosopher (1863-1952)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

How to Think Before Speaking - wikiHow

I've blogged this for two reasons:

1. I like what it says: a how-to for the "cortico-thalamic pause", or counting to ten, as my mother used to say. It makes good sense to do so, and the article offers some reasonable, concise ways to learn this invaluable skill.

2. I like the delivery mechanism, or at least the idea of it: Wiki-how, "The How-to Manual That You Can Edit". Another use of the wiki technology, which I have written about elsewhere.

Of course, as with all the wiki stuff I have seen, it behooves one to maintain a certain skepticism about the information, especially where it borders on "common sense". After all, "common sense is that which tells us the world is flat." (Stuart Chase, quoted in S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Outsourcing the Self

Alexander J. Hartman, a student of biology at University of South Carolina, draws cartoons in class and thinks pretty deeply about How Life Works, including this, to me, intriguing reverie on "outsourcing".

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Science reports "too dry"?

Here's a brief item in New Scientist reporting on a study made by linguist of typical "biomedical" research reports. The linguists state that the papers would be "easier to understand" if authors "used more sensory words".

The item concludes with this sentence: "However, Athar Yawar, a senior editor at The Lancet, thinks that any change would require a rethink of scientific method to incorporate sensory experience as well as its usual abstract concepts."

What do you think the linguists mean by "sensory words"? Can a scientific report benefit from more "sensory words"? Would you expect a substantive difference between such words and the kind of statements made in a typical scientific report?

What do you think of the idea of using them in this context, for this purpose?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Thinking Differently

This NY Times article describes a new generation of anti-psychotic drugs that might actually treat cognitive problems as well as reducing hallucinations. The article focuses on Darryle Schoepp who ran the original trials of a drug that modifies glutamate uptake in the brain.

When asked what he would do if the larger trials failed, he said he would probably go out and have a beer.

"You have to define failure. If you collect information and it tells you what you need to know, you’re not a failure."

This beautifully illustrates two of my favorite principles:
  1. How we define something largely controls how we react to it.
  2. Scientists value negative feedback as much as positive, making them less vulnerable to confirmation bias.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Cognitive Accuracy

No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.
-Isaac Asimov, scientist and writer (1920-1992)

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Just Semantics?

From cartoonist Dave Coverly, creator of the Speed Bump comic strip:

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Historical Quote

Written history is, in fact, nothing of the kind; it is the fragmentary record of the often inexplicable actions of innumerable bewildered human beings, set down and interpreted according to their own limitations by other human beings, equally bewildered.

--Veronica Wedgwood, British historian and writer (1910-1997)

Monday, January 14, 2008


Thanks to Bruce I. Kodish for alerting me to this fan-art episode of Dinosaur Comics. T-Rex discovers general semantics and embraces his abstractions.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Word Magic on 60 Minutes

I rarely watch 60 minutes because when I do, I almost invariably hear or see something so patently glib or glossy that I nearly explode. Last night, the TV ended up there for the last 10 minutes of the show, so I turned on the sound for Andy Rooney. He sometimes makes amusing comments amid his laconic meanderings. What I heard literally made my jaw drop.

He said, and I believe this fairly summarizes his words: "Jefferson" and "Roosevelt" were obviously presidential names, but what kind of a name is "Barak Obama" or "Mike Huckabee"?

Even if played as humorous, this amounts to a shameful glorification of Word Magic at its worst. Knowing that a goodly percent of his audience won't get his humor, I find it amazing that CBS allowed him to blather on like that. I hope they get a boatload of emails and letters, but I wonder if anyone else even noticed how stupid it sounds to say, in effect, "Washington and Lincoln had names that sounded presidential, but who would name an airport or a high school after somebody named 'Mitt Romney'?"