Monthly Archives: April 2008

Derren Brown’s cold reading

Cold reading : Confirmation bias : Selective validation

It seems that quite a few people find the following argument logically invalid (i.e. they refuse that statement 3 follows from statements 1 & 2), because they do not distinguish their beliefs regarding true-false values of statements from their logical validity within a context.

* If it rains I will get wet.
* If I have my umbrella I won’t get wet.
-> Therefore, if I have my umbrella it won’t rain.


“All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” is the sensational title of a book of essays. I haven’t read it, and this post is not about that. The more common variant of this is more like “All I Really Need To Know I Learned By Age 15”. In fact, most widespread is an implicit position – “All I Really Need To Know I Learned By Yesterday”.

Yes,but-ism is one of the mechanisms through which we cling to yesterday’s beliefs. A tendency to a habitual “Yes, but …” reaction as the first line of defence should set off alarm bells in a watchful mind, for potential belief-updates are being summarily blocked. Assuming that the Yes,but-ist is not bigoted, under what conditions then is he/she going to update his/her beliefs? I think that some Yes,but-ists wait for “Aha!” moments to update their beliefs of yesterday.

I first came across the Aha! terminology several years ago when I was reading about Gestalt therapy. I reproduce here an extract from Baker-Sennett & Ceci(1996)/Abstract:

“The most basic premise of Gestalt psychology suggests that the task of human perception and thinking involves the organization and recognition of patterns in the environment (see Koffka, 1935; Kohler, 1947; Wertheimer, 1959 and reviews by Epstein, 1988; Ohlsson, 1984a; 1984b). Kohler, Wertheimer, and others argued that at some point while searching for a solution, the problem is spontaneously restructured, a pattern comes in to perspective, and the problem is solved. Upon arriving at a problem solution, the solver experiences an immediate feeling of correctness otherwise known as an “AHA!” experience.”

The story of the discovery of the Archimedes’ principle, and Kekule’s inspiration for the structure of benzene come to mind as outstanding examples. But it is a tall order to fundamentally expect Aha! moments to trigger belief-updates. Registration of something as profound vs. commonplace is actually a trait of the labeler’s mind, not of the phenomenon being studied. Just to cite one example, what Tesla presumably considered profound and important enough to dedicate his life to pursue, are now a few “ho-hum”, “banal” chapters in an engineering textbook, presumably not possessing the potential to inspire an Aha! experience for many Yes, but-ists.

Aha! moments are few and far between, and furthermore are functions of the Yes,but-ists’ minds rather than the subject matter. (On top of that, people tend to ascribe low Aha!-potential to a phenomenon – even a complicated one – that has already been explained, even if they don’t understand the explanation, and regardless of if the original explanation-quest happened through historical, momentous Aha! moments.) The entirety of painstakingly accumulated collective knowledge on the other hand is out of our bounds owing to its sheer overwhelming vastness; even if we were to constantly strive to update our beliefs of yesterday through proactive bromidic means – let alone wait for the luxury of Aha! moments.

Death is a powerful device employed in literature to create lasting impact on readers’ minds.

The human mind is not especially given to rational reasoning, but is wont to employ heuristics of association that practically lead to local near-maxima for goals important to the human organism, viz. happiness, security and so on, but are hence subject to biases. For example, the scarcity->value association is heuristically employed to sometimes conclude the wrong implication. For instance, people may
– value hard-earned wealth over bequeathed wealth.
– not think highly of a hypothetical futuristic pill which when swallowed provides all the health benefits of exercise.
Another example – people may use “short-cuts” of associativity by making choices that are based on a different criterion than the one immediately applicable to the issue on hand. For instance, people may
– use “likability” or “family values” as important criteria to elect a president.
Advertisers and politicians are aware of these associations and use them to their advantage. Thus, the attractively clad supermodel next to a sports car that needs to be sold, and campaigners offering voters rides to poll booths (illegal in a lot of democratic establishments).

Fascination with the mystery and awe of death, as well as its finality makes it an especially effective instrument to lend gravity to a literary idea. An eager mind may be induced to conclude that a cause that needs to be paid for with death must be an overarchingly important one, since it exacts the ultimate price. Morbid plot lines stimulate zones of fascination and mystery in the mind increasing the appeal of the subject-matter. Killing a character after painstakingly developing him/her makes the story more compelling by evoking such associative tendencies of the reader’s mind. Hence for instance the larger lasting impact of Shakespeare’s tragedies over his comedies.

Most religious and spiritual literature concern themselves with ideas of death such as “embracing death”, afterlife, reincarnation, salvation/nirvana as an escape from birth and death, the soul and its immortality, hell/heaven, eternity and so on. Hypotheses regarding death play a major role in the memetic survival quality and longevity of religious/spiritual credos. There are some who have explored this relationship. For example, consider this psychological experiment referred to by Wray Herbert, and see Umberto Eco’s philosophical take on another related topic.

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?”
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?”
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”

“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen
Reihn Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”

“Ich lieb’ dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!”

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not –
In seinen Armen, das Kind war tot.

Who rides so late through the night and the wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in his arm,
grasps him securely, keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”

“Father, do you not see the Elf-King?
The Elf-King with his crown and train?”

“My son, it is only a streak of mist.”

Elf King
“Darling child, come away with me!
I will play fine games with you.
Many gay flowers grow by the shore:
my mother has many golden robes.”

“Father, father, do you not hear
what the Elf-King softly promises me?

“Be calm, dear child, be calm–
The wind is rustling in the dry leaves.”

Elf King
“You beautiful boy, will you come with me?
My daughters will wait upon you.
My daughters will lead the nightly round,
they will rock you, dance to you, sing you to sleep.”

“Father, father, do you not see
the Elf-King’s daughters there, in that dark place?”

My son, my son, I see it clearly:
it is the grey gleam of the old willow-trees.”

Elf King
“I love you, your beauty allures me,
and if you do not come willingly, I shall use force.”

“Father, father, now he is seizing me!
The Elf-King has hurt me!”—

Fear grips the father, he rides swiftly,
holding the moaning child in his arms;
with effort and toil he reaches the house–
the child in his arms was dead.]

(..don’t know the translator)

Der Erlkönig

You have probably encountered the new-age-ish refrain “Anything is possible” especially in the context of human endeavours. I have. In the past, my first reaction has been to counter it. I also note that by sufficiently redefining the meanings of the words ‘anything’ (especially), ‘possible’, and ‘is’, I suppose a vague justification of the sentence is possible. The more vaguely redefined the terms need to be, the more the degree of untruth of such statements.

But ponder the ‘how’ of it, rather than its truth-value. That is, what is it that makes something possible? Consider a couple of specific instances of possibilities for humans, and the theory of evolution proffers an explanation. It is possible to up our capacity to run several miles, for our ancestors have passed on possibilities of augmenting (through training) lung capacities, strengthening leg muscles and so on that aid in running, – such abilities naturally selected for their hunter ways. Our evolutionary ancestors braved the cold climes leading to selections that allow us to put on layers of fat for training to swim in very cold climates. Spatial visualization possibilities selected to survive in prehistoric jungles make it possible to “intuitively” understand classical mechanics, a theory built on physical collisions of bodies of sizes comparable to those of objects encountered in the everyday world.

The inability to visualize a 4th dimension (or for that matter a 5th, 6th, 7th etc. dimension for string theory) is explained by the absence of positive evolutionary selection pressures exerted for that to come about, since an intuition for a 4th dimension does not improve survival possibilities of said ancestors. Similarly, not being able to develop an “intuition” for quantum entanglement is understandable considering the scales at which QM operates is without value for surviving in a “life-sized” world. Feynman said “I firmly believe if you cannot explain a principle of physics in common language and terms, then you probably do not fully grasp the principle in the first place.” Unfortunately, while the value of this dictum is self-evident, it applies in most but not all cases.

Consider now and compare a novice chess player NN, and a grandmaster GM. NN approaches the game as an area where he/she can eagerly demonstrate his/her proficiency in wild gambits, spectacular sacrifices and tactical melees. GM however, understands that the elegantly simple rules of chess set up complex fields of positional, strategic possibilities which allows the harmonious delicate dances of pieces on the board. NN, consumed by his/her myopia, does not recognize the source of the power he/she professes to possess. GM however, has understood that true mastery is an unraveling of the possibilities allowed by the rules of the game.

The game is paradoxically smaller than NN and yet larger than GM. A quote comes to mind – I am sure I paraphrase, please point me to the original if you are aware of it – “The apprentice laments ‘My art has failed me’, while the master says ‘I have failed my art'”.