Tag Archives: philosophy

Sagan’s Cosmos on the Scientific Method and Uncomfortable Ideas

I’m currently watching Carl Sagan’s excellent Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. I feel compelled to post the following quote from episode four, Heaven and Hell, as it stood out for its elegant argument for the strength of scientific ideas and for not rejecting uncomfortable (if incorrect) ideas:

There are many hypotheses in science which are wrong. That’s all right. It’s the aperture to finding out what’s right. Science is a self-correcting process. To be accepted, new ideas must survive the most rigorous standards of evidence and scrutiny.

The worst aspect of the Velikovsky affair is not that many of his ideas were wrong or silly or in gross contradiction to the facts. Rather, the worst aspect is that some scientists attempted to suppress Velikovsky’s ideas.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge. And there is no place for it in the endeavour of science.

We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system. And the history of our study of the solar system shows clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources.

And if you think this only applies to wacky astronomical ideas or insights about our solar system… well, then you’re deluding yourself.

I can’t wait for the updated Cosmos presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson; it’ll be the best thing on TV since sliced bread.

Strangers and Friends: A Shared History and Less Graciousness

Ryan Holiday asks a very good question: why do we extend patience and tolerance to strangers, while simultaneously treating those closest to us less graciously?

It’s an interesting question with some equally interesting possible answers (is it a subconscious and inefficient way of attempting to ease our daily lives by telling those we spend the most time with how we want to be treated?). I like the conclusory piece of advice: we should give everyone “the graciousness of meeting them fresh each time”.

Some weirdo says something to you in the grocery store and you smile and nod your head, “Yup!” Just to avoid a scene right? You have a meeting with a sales rep and indulge the friendly but pointless chitchat even though you hate it. But a friend mispronounces a word and we leap to correct them. Your girlfriend tells a boring story and you’ve got to say something about it, you’ve got to get short with her. What kind of bullshit is this? We give the benefit of courtesy to everybody but the people who earned it.

Think of how much patience we have for total strangers and acquaintances. But what a short fuse we have for the actual people in our life. In the course of our everyday lives, our priorities are so very backwards. We do our best to impress people we’ll never see again and take for granted people we see all the time. We’re respectful in our business lives, casual and careless in our personal. We punish closeness with criticism, reward unfamiliarity with politeness.

This is a great example of why I read Ryan’s work: he’s adept at pointing out the everyday hypocrisies that we rarely notice.

Together, Unconscious: We All Sleep

One constant that connects us all in some way is that–at the end of our day–we lie down and slowly slip into a state of reduced or absent consciousness and become at the mercy of our fellow man. Every day we fall asleep: we have done so for millions of years and will continue to do so.

This humbling thought was inspired by David Cain’s short disquisition on how the act of sleeping is something that unites us together, all around the world. David’s post didn’t quite take the route I was expecting after reading the (wonderful) excerpt below1, but is still definitely worth a read.

It’s an interesting quirk of Mother Nature — that she insists on taking us down to the ground like that, every day, no matter who we are. For all of us, the act of leaving consciousness is the same, it’s just our settings and situations — which bookend that unconsciousness — where we differ.

via Link Banana

1 I was expecting the post to concentrate on the first sentence (leaving consciousness), rather than the second sentence (sleep as a connector).

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the correspondence bias (here) reminded me of possibly the best commencement speech that I’ve not yet written about (and I’ve written about quite a few): David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wallace’s only public talk concerning his worldview, was adapted following his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life and is essential reading for anyone interested in personal choice: the choice of thinking and acting in a way contrary to our self-centered “default” worldview.

Actually, scrap that, it’s just essential reading for everyone.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

To read the speech I recommend the version from More Intelligent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was given. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journal‘s copy and The Guardian‘s copy may be more to your taste.

First We Believe, Then We Evaluate

When presented with a piece of information for the first time, do we first understand the message before carefully evaluating its truthfulness and deciding whether to believe it, or do we instead immediately and automatically believe everything we read?

In an article that traces the history of this question (Descartes argued that “understanding and believing are two separate processes” while Spinoza thought that “the very act of understanding information was believing it”), an ingenious experiment conducted almost twenty years ago by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, describes how Spinoza was correct: when we first encounter information we believe it immediately and without thought, only to fully evaluate its truthfulness moments later provided we are not distracted.

Obviously it is important to be aware of this behaviour, as to be distracted while reading critical information of questionable veracity could cause us to not evaluate it fully or at all. However this behaviour has further implications, according to the article, suggesting that this may “explain other behaviours that people regularly display”, including:

  • Correspondence bias: this is people’s assumption that others’ behaviour reflects their personality, when really it reflects the situation.
  • Truthfulness bias: people tend to assume that others are telling the truth, even when they are lying.
  • The persuasion effect: when people are distracted it increases the persuasiveness of a message.
  • Denial-innuendo effect: people tend to positively believe in things that are being categorically denied.
  • Hypothesis testing bias: when testing a theory, instead of trying to prove it wrong people tend to look for information that confirms it.