Archive for March 26th, 2012

What You See is All There Is: Not-much information usually seems like enough.

| March 26, 2012 | 1 Reply
What You See is All There Is: Not-much information usually seems like enough.

Back in 1996, I wrote a paper I called “Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention,” in which I claimed that most of our dramatic “moral lapses” are not the result people intentionally trying to hurt others. Rather, most of the harm humans inflict on other humans results from the manner in which we deploy attention. We are able to make any moral issue vanish simply by not paying attention to it. Quite often we develop habits of not paying attention to certain aspects of the world—a classic habit for Americans is not considering that on planet Earth, a child starves to death every 5 seconds. If you have habituated yourself to not-think about this horrible and undeniable fact, it is quite easy to blow a large sums of money on things like poodle-haircuts, vacation homes, and even a steady stream of fancy meals.

Near the beginning of my paper, I argued that human animals are more than happy to act out of ignorance because it never actually seems that we are acting out of ignorance. Instead, humans readily assume that they have sufficient information for making important decisions even when a smidgeon of self-critical conscious thought would instantly reveal that they are woefully under-informed. When it comes to making decisions, we are fearless in our ignorance.

In the paper I mentioned above, I described various ways that cognitive science has demonstrated that human attention is severely limited. Thanks to cognitive science (but not thanks to common sense) we know that we can only see eighteen characters of text per saccade while we read, which invites computer-assisted experimenters to continually, and in real-time, fill extra-foveal regions with garbage, unbeknownst to readers. See “A Critique of Pure Vision,” P. Churchland, V. Ramachandran, & T. Sejnowski, p. 37-38. Using conversation shadowing, Broadbent and Treisman demonstrated that one’s ability to absorb multiple simultaneous conversations is severely limited. Attention is bottlenecked at the site of working memory, as well as during perception. As George Miller pointed out long ago, “[T]he span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process and remember.” George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” The Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (March, 1956). Given that humans have such tiny attentional windows, it is surprising the extent to which we take it for granted that we share the same world. The world is laughingly beyond our capacity to fathom without rampant simplification.

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Who do you call to investigate charlatans and tricksters?

| March 26, 2012 | 10 Replies
Who do you call to investigate charlatans and tricksters?

When someone makes a supernatural claim, James Randi would not recruit only scientists to investigate. He writes that you should consider hiring a trickster to investigate a trickster. More particularly, you should bring in a magician:

I particularly like the way our associate, magician and skeptic Jamy Ian Swiss, has expressed this point:

Any magician worth his salt will tell you that the smarter an audience, the more easily fooled they are. That’s a very counterintuitive idea. But it’s why scientists, for example, get in trouble with psychics and such types. Scientists aren’t trained to study something that’s deceptive. Did you ever hear of a sneaky amoeba? I don’t think so. You know, they don’t get together on the slide and go, “Hey, let’s fool the big guy.”

. . .

Harry Houdini stood on the floor of the U.S. Congress and stridently denounced a variety of hoaxers, flaunting his cash prize for an example of a supernatural feat that would prove him wrong. Magicians like Penn & Teller and others have stepped forward to express their expert opinions concerning expensive and wasteful pursuits of chimeras. What we need now is to formalize this. We magicians have to make it clear that the insights we need to be magicians can be leveraged in the scientific method, and that we are on call.

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Breath of fresh air

| March 26, 2012 | Reply

Our family vacuum cleaner had seen better days. Like most things that break these days, it wasn’t that old; my wife and I bought it less than five years ago. Thus, the frustration and an opportunity. We were aware that there was a vacuum repair store less than a mile from our house, and we decided to see whether we could save our vacuum.

Upon entering, we spoke to “Dan,” who has been running his vacuum repair shop for fifty years. He is a affable fellow with a small shop filled with more than 50 used vacuum cleaners. After a quick test of our machine, Dan announced that $40 would get our old vacuum working again. That would have been much less than $200, the price we would pay for a new vacuum cleaner. But for $100 and our vacuum as a trade-in, we could upgrade to a significantly better “commercial vacuum” that someone else had traded-in and which Dan had already repaired. My wife and I decided to upgrade, and we are now happy with our powerful “new” vacuum (not so powerful that it sucks up pets and children, but quite powerful).

It occurred to me that this is an unusual way of doing business in modern America. As Annie Leonard explains so well in “The Story of Stuff,” most things that are manufactured these days are designed for a single use (including immense amounts of packaging). My family makes regular use of other kinds of re-sell-it shops, including Goodwill, Salvation Army and private garage sales. But how nice, to also be able to make use of a store for fixes things in order to keep them out of the landfill, especially when these things are expensive household appliances. Perhaps a vacuum cleaner is about as cheap as appliance can be while it is still expensive enough to make it worthwhile to offer a repair shop. At least, I don’t remember seeing any smaller appliance repair shops; a look on the Internet tells me that such shops do exist, however.

Dan had more than a few noticeably old (repaired) vacuums for sale, a sight that made me think of the phrase “planned obsolescence.” I do think society would be better off with fewer big box purchases and more repair shops. And since Dan was such a competent and friendly fellow, I’ll mention that he is an avid bowler who recently bowled his second 300 game.

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