The teleological drive – the desire to not merely make, but rather to perceive inherent purpose in the world – influences a myriad of adult human behavior. Such behavior may range from conspiracy theories to abstract philosophical works, but even “scientists” may falter. […]
Both Darwin and Freud introduced highly disconcerting models of thought for a world hitherto predicated on the teleological. The theory of evolution and the unconscious seemed to queer many of the most ingrained human conceptions of purpose and control. However, the drive toward Why Must!? is not easily banished, and rather than die out, it burrowed into the very concepts that threatened it. Little wonder then that many of us today conceive of evolution as Nature’s architect and regard the unconscious (our Id) as an insidious competitor-agent. In such a teleological worldview, emotions such as sadness are no longer random behavioral traits. Rather, they become adaptive instinct, forged by Nature to guide humanity and distinguish intuitively between right and wrong.
All good so far, but what’s this about?
Although the following statement risks being unscientific, what all the aforementioned seems to imply is that human beings have a strong teleological instinct, a propensity for asking Why? and Why Must!? Our obsession with perceiving (and thus ascribing) purpose most likely arose as an adaptive trait in an inter-human, social context. With such complex brains, humans are capable of countless emotional affections and a perhaps infinite array of varied behavior. To perceive someone teleologically is to see and comprehend his intent, his consciousness in relation to one’s own. The comprehension of intent offers security from the innumerable and seemingly purposeless actions humans may exhibit. On an anthropological level, teleology would seem to benefit the formation of complex, social structures, wherein the determination of purpose serves to regulate and maintain varied levels of production and class. The agency-attribution error supports the notion that teleology is an instinct “made” for humans, the only beings with an agenda, that is, capable of being purposeful agents. Both scientists and laymen would do well to remember the influence this artificial instinct has on thought and language. After all, if language-cognition arose under a teleological context (that is, a human-social context), all semantics must contain, invoke, and conceal a Why Must!?
Sure, it’s possible that there’s an evolutionary function of the teleological impulse (I’ll call it an impulse since we don’t know that it’s actually an instinct) – but we should remember that evolution only selects for “good enough,” not necessarily “optimal.” The teleological impulse may be a side effect of our ability to determine cause and effect (which does seem to serve an evolutionary function) and serve no actual function. We’ve made it this far with it, so it hasn’t been selected out – just like many other harmful human behaviors.
I’ve covered this problem before, but it’s good to see it getting more traction – whether it will do any good remains to be seen.
We often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.
This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.
Jay Rosen draws attention to the slight difference in behavior between self-identified liberal and conservatives:
The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.
I also thought this was particularly interesting:
A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.
It’s not all doom and gloom, but I’ll let you read the article for the few rays of optimism. One thing not mentioned in the article: fact checking articles are becoming more popular (but I suppose they might not actually change people’s minds).
NPR covered this today as well, but I was disappointed in the portion of it I heard.
Sometimes we hate being wrong because of the consequences. Mistakes can cost us time and money, expose us to danger or inflict harm on others, and erode the trust extended to us by our community. Yet even when we are wrong about completely trivial matters — when we mispronounce a word, mistake our neighbor Emily for our co-worker Anne, make the dinner reservation for Tuesday instead of Thursday — we often respond with embarrassment, irritation, defensiveness, denial, and blame. Deep down, it is wrongness itself that we hate. […]
As ashamed as we may feel of our mistakes, they are not a byproduct of all that’s worst about being human. On the contrary: They’re a byproduct of all that’s best about us. We don’t get things wrong because we are uninformed and lazy and stupid and evil. We get things wrong because we get things right. The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning, the more it becomes clear that our capacity to err is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain so swift, adaptable, and intelligent.
Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.
Second, it’s based on flawed logic. It begs the question by assuming that a proponent of an action must prove that the nightmare scenario is impossible.
Third, it can be used to support any position or its opposite. If we build a nuclear power plant, it could melt down. If we don’t build it, we will run short of power and society will collapse into anarchy. If we allow flights near Iceland’s volcanic ash, planes will crash and people will die. If we don’t, organs won’t arrive in time for transplant operations and people will die. If we don’t invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein might use the nuclear weapons he might have. If we do, we might destabilize the Middle East, leading to widespread violence and death.
Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planet is bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.
The term “systems thinking” has a few different connotations. Classically, non-linear dynamic systems represents a set of principles that describe the organization of energy as an extropic function of information, driven by power laws and bounded by limits. The formulas within this domain are often applied to natural systems such as populations, fluid dynamics, and so-called chaotic processes like dripping faucets and epileptic seizures. Some of the better-known ideas within dynamic systems are attractors, bifurcations, and the process of iteration.
More broadly, systems thinking refers to a widening perspective when studying networked domains. For example, the recent trends in Life Cycle Analysis in product design & manufacturing attempts to go beyond the material & energetic costs of the physical object – eg a plastic bottle of water – to consider every aspect of its life cycle from sourcing all of materials and manufacturing support, cost of shipping, human impact of the workers, environmental impact, and end-of-life in a landfill or recycling depot. Wal-Mart, to its credit, has made great strides across its supply chain by optimizing efficiency in the life cycle of the many products that end up on its shelves and in people’s lives. Some of these solutions can be a simple and radical as redesigning packaging for minimal materials use and shipping weight.
Recently, systems thinking has been applied to the design process suggesting that designers are uniquely empowered to engineer powerful solutions for complex problems in ways that benefit many different human and non-human stakeholders, eg nature is a primary stakeholder, as are future generations saddled with our often myopic creations.
I tend to use systems thinking to describe all of these connotations rolled up into a general way of looking at the world that goes beyond what is immediately visible and reaches into the extended connections and unseen impacts within a domain. In some respects, this way of thinking is a natural part of simply paying attention to things. In other ways, it’s a challenging and sometimes overwhelming course of study that can easily move from Aha! moments to a very dis-empowering sense of total non-determinism. In the face of such huge complexity it can seem impossible to make any actionable sense of things. Finding the balance and determining the appropriate scope of research in analyzing a domain is a critical skill that must be developed individually through practice, lest you tug on that thread and find you’ve unraveled the entire sweater.
Some resources to get you thinking about the micro & macro of complex systems:
Complexity: a Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell. A great, thorough introduction to complexity and systems thinking. Beginner to intermediate. Don’t be scared by the equations – there’s lot’s of good info here. “Readers will marvel at the sheer range of settings in which complex systems operate: from ant hills to the stock market, from T cells to Web searches, from disease epidemics to power outages, complexity challenges theorists’ intellectual adroitness. With refreshing clarity, Mitchell invites nonspecialists to share in these researchers’ adventures in recognizing and measuring complexity and then predicting its cascading effects.”
Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness by John Briggs. A solid introduction to systems, chaos, and wholeness. “Briggs and Peat look at how chaos theory has also influenced other scientific disciplines, offering a model, for example, for understanding the human brain and developing computer systems for artificial intelligence. The book’s chapter heading quotations from Chinese Taoist texts and Alice in Wonderland are clues that readers are being led into abstruse territory. But encouraging readers to appreciate nuances of truth rather than to seek a reductionist version of truth may be what chaos theory–and this book–is all about.”
The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra. A great analysis of how complexity and non-linearity inform the foundations of our natural world. “…brilliant synthesis of such recent scientific breakthroughs as the theory of complexity, Gaia theory, chaos theory, and other explanations of the properties of organisms, social systems, and ecosystems. Capra’s surprising findings stand in stark contrast to accepted paradigms of mechanism and Darwinism and provide an extraordinary new foundation for ecological policies that will allow us to build and sustain communities without diminishing the opportunities for future generations.”
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. An excellent general introduction to smart design and life cycle analysis that advocates for both prosperity and sustainability. “…the authors present a manifesto calling for a new industrial revolution, one that would render both traditional manufacturing and traditional environmentalism obsolete. The authors, an architect and a chemist, want to eliminate the concept of waste altogether, while preserving commerce and allowing for human nature.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A highly-readable & engaging study of the vast, interconnected, and interdependent systems of agriculture, energy, and the journey of food to our plate.
Systems Science, a blog series by George Mobus. Scroll down (and go back a page) to start at “Systems Science, Part 1.” Mobus provides a good overview of systems theory.
Finally, just start training yourself to look beyond the visible, to follow connections, and to think in more holistic terms when considering the larger interconnections at play in all domains. Consider, for example, all of the machines, organizations, people, and processes that contributed to your dinner tonight. Nothing is as simple as it seems yet, often, there are very simple rules underlying their complexity.
In addition to the number of frameworks and ideas, and the density of the interconnections among them, there was a strong normative quality to the material and its presentation. “If one hopes to make any progress at all,” we were told, “you need to both understand and accept these related ideas.”
This particular version of systems thinking is not unusual in this respect. Peter Senge’s 1990 edition of The Fifth Discipline describes one manager’s reaction to a five-day introductory workshop on his approach, which among other things, requires growing comfortable with eight archetypes: “It reminds me of when I first studied calculus (p. x).” Systems dynamics, the Soft Systems Method and other approaches face similar concerns.
Each of systems thinking’s various manifestations demands some degree of subscription to an orthodoxy (a particular view of just what systems thinking is). And each requires that the user master a large number of related ideas and techniques, most of which are not particularly useful on their own.
Accounting techniques like budgeting, sales projections and financial reporting are supposed to help prevent business failures by giving managers realistic plans to guide their actions and feedback on their progress. In other words, they are supposed to leaven entrepreneurial optimism with green-eye-shaded realism.
At least that’s the theory. But when Gavin Cassar, a Wharton accounting professor, tested this idea, he found something troubling: Some accounting tools not only fail to help businesspeople, but may actually lead them astray. In one of his recent studies, forthcoming in Contemporary Accounting Research, Cassar showed that budgeting didn’t help a group of Australian firms accurately forecast their revenues. In a second paper,he found that the preparation of financial projections added to aspiring entrepreneurs’ optimism, leading them to overestimate their subsequent levels of sales and employment.
“It’s been shown in many studies that people are overly optimistic,” Cassar says. “What’s interesting here is that, when you use the accounting tools, the optimism is even more extreme. This suggests that using the tools, which a lot of academics and government agencies say is good practice, can lead to even bigger mistakes.”
Robin Hanson, quite the contrarian himself, offers contrarians some advice:
On average, contrarian views are less accurate than standard views. Honest contrarians should admit this, that neutral outsiders should assign most contrarian views a lower probability than standard views, though perhaps a high enough probability to warrant further investigation. […]
He goes on to list a few common but inadequate contrarian defenses and offers critiques of each:
1. They Laughed At Galileo Too
2. Standard Experts Are Biased
3. We’ve More Detail Than Critics
4. Few Who Study Us Disagree
This one’s simple: meet more people in the real world. Attend more conferences, unconferences, and meetups. I know of no better way than “networking” (however crass that sounds) to find jobs, collaborators, business partners, romantic partners, customers, clients, etc. etc. In increasingly precarious times, having strong networks has never been more important.
I have no illusions about getting “off the grid” but I do want to substantially supplement my diet with homegrown food. Given that during WWII 40% of all vegtables eaten were grown at home, I think it’s reasonable to think that gardening will be a key part of our food security moving forward into the recession.
My partner and I have access to outdoor gardening space at our apartment building, and live about 3 blocks from a community garden. But since we’re planning on moving (and obviously we missed planting season) we’re planning on starting with a small indoor hydroponic system, probably an EarthBox (or maybe a DIY EarthBox) with an LED grow light. Also, I just ordered the Espresso Oyster Mushroom Patch from Fungi Perfecti. I’ll be sharing my results and experiences with the process.
Excercise & ergonomics
Your health is probably the most sound investment you can make at this point. I’d done a decent job of keeping in shape in recent years until 2008, but I totally fell off this year. My partner and I have been doing vinyasa yoga at home lately, and I plan on keeping up with this. More walking and biking is also mandatory.
I’m also dedicating myself to learning up on ergonomics. Bruce Sterling has a good rant on the subject here, but doesn’t fully drive home the health angle. Most of you reading this are probably destroying your eyes and back right now. Hell, I’m screwing myself up writing this. This must stop.
Start using local currency
I’ve been fascinated with local currency for some time, but have never actually used it. It’s about time I signed up for Cascadia Hour Exchange.
Committing to solving global problems
Perhaps the best way to protect oneself against the global problems we face is to solve the problems. Thus, I am committing myself to converting all my experience to the highest advantage of others. So from now on, everything I do will revolve around a couple simple questions: does this benefit humanity and if not, how can it?