Sunday, January 31, 2010

Applying Science to Science

GS suggests that terms like "global climate change" and "economic depression" and "political action" fall into the category of large, multifaceted, heavily-laden abstractions lacking specific meaning when used generally without specific context. This can make it difficult to discuss various facets of those terms in a reasoned scientific way, since one person's "major polluter" may look like an "economic necessity" to someone else. Based on these over-under-generalized terms, our global society has found it difficult to come to grips with not only how to act regarding these issues, but whether to act at all.

This YouTube video offers an interesting, if somewhat simplistic, proposal:

Basically, the speaker demonstrates that we can come to a conclusion about whether to act without resolving the question of whether global climate change "is really happening" or not. He shows that, regardless of how you define the potential outcomes of the "is it real" debate, you can estimate the relative cost of acting or failing to act sufficiently well to decide which course makes sense.

While someone could attack the potential outcomes he assigns to various possible actions as oversimplified, his logic seems pretty reasonable and straightforward. If the worst risk of not acting appears to exceed the worst risk of acting, why would we not act?

Of course, one might answer, "because *I* face the risks of our acting now, while future generations face the risk of our not acting now." But that's an argument for another day.

For now, I would agree with the video maker: what's the worst that could happen?

Maybe this?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Rare Notice of a Rare GS Idea

Every once in a while, somebody rediscovers or remembers some GS-related idea or practice and writes about it in the world press. Today's example comes from Oliver Burkeman, Life and Style columnist for the British newspaper, the Guardian, who writes a fair and generous article on the topic of e-Prime.

Burkeman appears to know his GS. He says:

in this anniversary year [of Bourland's original article on e-Prime], his eccentric vision deserves celebrating. Because in theory at least, E-Prime aimed at nothing less than using language to make our insane lives a little more sane.

While some of his explicit examples of e-Prime come out a little stilted ("To live or not to live, I ask this question" and "The Lord functions as my shepherd"), Burkeman's articulate posting shows he has a fairly competent handle on e-Prime. For example, he notes:
"I am a failure" feels permanent, all-encompassing, hopeless. Restating it in E-Prime – "I feel like a failure" or "I have failed at this task" – makes it limited, temporary, addressable.
To think about and function in the world, Korzybski said, we rely on systems of abstract concepts, most obviously language. But those concepts don't reflect the world in a straightforward way; instead, they contain hidden traps that distort reality, causing confusion and angst. And the verb "to be", he argued, contains the most traps of all.
Burkeman also notes that neuroscience has begun to catch up with Korzybski's and Bourland's understanding of the connection between the words we use and the thoughts we think:
as cognitive therapists note, thoughts trigger emotions, and "finalistic, absolutistic" thoughts trigger stressful emotions.
Despite having used e-Prime to produce a clear and easy-to-read article extolling the value of e-Prime, Burkeman seems to dismiss his own point, when he says "in fairness Bourland never meant it as a serious replace­ment for English", as if someone promoting e-Prime needs an excuse for such wacky thinking.

In my view, any tool that exposes the biases and errors in understanding hidden in our day-to-day speech can only help improve communication. Most people reject e-Prime either because it makes writing difficult (it does, but only because you have to stop and think what you might really mean to say) or because it results in stilted, awkward phrasing (it can, but usually only while the writer unlearns the thought processes that rely on the far easier to-be structure.)

For example, Burkeman offers "The Lord functions as my shepherd" as an example of e-Prime. In my view, this only substitutes non-to-be words without actually rethinking the meaning of the sentence. I would suggest "The Lord guides me as a shepherd guides his sheep," which clears away the labelling of the original while exposing the actor and identifying the action.

That, to me, represents the value of a tool like e-Prime. In the years since Bourland's article, others have come to recognize that just rejecting "to be" doesn't quite cover the various pitfalls of unthinking speech. Allen Walker Read suggested using e-Ma, "English minus absolutisms", implemented by avoiding false-to-fact words like "every", "all", "always" and "never."

I prefer my own blend of these ideas, which one might call "e-MaP", English minus "to be", minus absolutisms, and minus "prescriptives", meaning words like "should", "must" and "need". To say "I must go to work today" obscures the choice I make. To say "I need a new car" obscures the fact that I can certainly live without one, but would prefer something new and shiny in my driveway.

Give it a try. You have only your implicit prejudices to lose!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Words We Use DO Make a Difference?!

More corroboration of the connection between the words we use and the meanings we make comes in an article from the International Journal of Drug Policy, reported here.

Researchers developed two different texts about a man who was "having trouble keeping to his court-ordered treatment program requiring abstinence from alcohol and other drugs." In one version, the man is labeled as "substance abuser" while in the other, he is described as "having a substance-abuse disorder". These two texts were presented to mental health workers, after which the subjects were asked their opinions on how to treat the "patient".

The PhysOrg blog poster, apparently associated with Mass General Hospital, reports:

participants who received the paragraph describing [the patient] as a "substance abuser" were significantly more likely to agree that he should be punished for not following his required treatment plan. They were also more likely to agree with statements implying that that he was more to blame for his difficulty adhering to the court requirements.
The posting continues:
"We found that referring to someone with the 'abuser' terminology evokes more punitive attitudes than does describing that person's situation in exactly the same words except for using 'disorder' terminology," says John F. Kelly, PhD, associate director of the MGH Center for Addiction Medicine, who led the study.
GS has long made a distinction between the application of a label and the reporting of observed process-oriented conditions. As the researchers found, the label inevitably reduces the individuality of the person labeled, enabling erroneous or prejudicial inferences to cloud the evaluation of the situation. Conversely, the use of scientific terms and phrases that describe the behavior or actions of person provide some distance between the person and the behavior, allowing the evaluator to treat the behavior with less prejudice and inference.

What we say about someone or something can influence not only how others react, but how we ourselves react to the words we have just used. Awareness of this interaction, and the effects it can have, can reduce the potential damaging effects of inadvertent prejudice and improve the outcome of treatment.

As Kelly says, ""There's an old proverb that states, if you want something to survive and flourish, call it a flower; if you want to kill it, call it a weed."