The Meaning of Large and Small

I continue to have difficulty comprehending the very large and the very small.

Yesterday, thinking about the word “small” itself, I got to wondering what I mean when I call something small.  I wondered how I would phrase a definition of the word, if I were assigned the task of creating one for a dictionary.  For example, I could say “small” means the same as “little.” But what would that add, say, to the understanding of someone who spoke only Chinese, or Martian?  My dictionary in fact defines “little” as “small in size.” Could I define “small” other than by simply using an English synonym for it? If you’re a word nerd like me, you might try doing this yourself. If you do, I’d be interested in hearing what you come up with. 

I think my big American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton-Mifflin) struggled with the same problem. In that dictionary, as noted, “little” is defined as “small in size,” while “small” is defined as “being below the average in size or magnitude.”  Fair enough, I thought, until I considered some other definitions in that same book, where  “size” is defined as “the physical dimension, magnitude or extent” of something, but “magnitude” is defined as “greatness in size or extent,” and “extent” is defined as “the range, magnitude or distance over which a thing extends.” 

Considering all these definitions together,  I imagined my Martian visitor persuaded that abstractions like “small” and “little” mean the same thing, but having no idea what that is. When the words are only defined in terms of each other, how can anyone tell what they really mean?

Though I felt I was going in circles, I kept trying.

“Great,” I learned, is “Very large in size,” while “large” is “of greater than average size or extent.”  So great means large and large means great.  Great! But if I didn’t already have an idea of big and small, where would that get me?

Of course, linguists have long recognized this circularity of language.  The problem isn’t just defining “small” by using a synonym like “little.”  It’s more general than that, and it ultimately comes from the absurdity of trying to define words using other words.  If we want to define what a word means by saying that word A is equal to  words B, C, and D, the problem is that no matter how many words we go through, every set of words becomes equivalent to nothing but other sets of words.  B, C and D are defined by E, F, and G, and those by H,I and J, but H, I and J are defined by A, B and C.   Even in a language of 50,000 words, that fixed set of things is limited – a closed loop, explainable only by itself.  Every word, sooner or later, can only be defined by reference to itself or to words that it has helped to define.  And in any such closed system, entropy sets in.

The definitions of “small” and “large” above both  make use of the concept of “average,” which might seem helpful, because “average” is a concept which takes me from the world of words into the world of mathematics.  If small is less than average and large is greater than average, then that should prove helpful – provided I know what “average” means.  But what do I mean by “average”?

My mathematical concept of “average” requires a finite set of numbers to consider.   I can say that the average of two 12’s, one 17 and one 19 is 15, but only because I know how many of each number I have for my calculation.  I’m dealing with a known, fixed, quantifiable set.  I might even be forgiven if I say that the average (in size) of one golf ball, one tennis ball, and one soccer ball is (more or less) a  baseball, because, again, I’m dealing with a know set of data.  But what data set — what objects,  and how many of them — should I use to compute an average, on my way toward understanding that small is below average, and large is above average?  The average size of all things? If I take  the smallest things I know, like quarks, and the largest, like the whole universe,  don’t I still need to know how many quarks there are, and how many stars of various sizes,  before I can compute an average size of things, and therefore to know what it means to be above or below the average of all things, and therefore, inherently large or small?

Meanwhile, in order to take into consideration, say, my dictionary, in order to count it in considering the average size of all things, do I count it as a single thing, about 14 inches in length and weighing a few pounds, or as a thousand smaller things, called pages, or several billion even smaller things, called molecules?  Is my car just a single car, or is it an engine, a body, a chassis, and four wheels? Obviously, if I count myself as one person of my size, I have a very different impact on the “average” of all things than if I count myself as a few billion cells of far smaller size. With such questions pervasive about every thing and every size, I submit, it is impossible to formulate a data set capable of yielding any meaningful concept of an “average” in the size of all things —  yet Houghton Mifflin has no problem saying that small things are things smaller than “average,” and large things  larger.

(By the way, I submit that it it makes no difference if we think in terms of medians. Using medians, I suspect our calculation would yield something only slightly larger than a quark, and virtually everything else would then be considered very, very big by comparison. And if we used the half way point between the size of a quark and the universe, we’d get get something half the size of the universe, and everything else would be very, very small. Can our feeling that we understand what’s big and what’s small be so dependent on different mathematical ways of thinking about averages?)

Pulling out that big dictionary again, I wonder, what makes it big?  At first glance, it doesn’t seem nearly as big as my car, yet I call it big while I call my car small.  Surely, I mean that my dictionary is big because it has greater magnitude – more pages, and more words — than other things to which I tend to compare it (roughly speaking, those other things I also call books).  I call my Toyota  small because it has less trunk space and passenger seating than my daughter’s SUV.  Could size, then, be a concept that is relative?  It seems so – but relative to what?

I find this last question intriguing.  I think a book big when I compare it to other books, and a car large (or small) when I compare it to other cars.  That concept of relative size seems easy. But if I think for a second that a star can only be thought large in comparison to other stars, I quickly retreat from my relativistic comfort zone.  Surely  stars are always, and absolutely, larger than books, and surely  books are always, and absolutely,  larger than quarks.  If so, surely there is something about size that is not relative to its own group of similar objects – something absolute which enables me to feel quite strongly  that one group of things is inherently larger than some other group of things.   And so, once again, I’m back to square one, wondering what makes one thing large and another thing small.

In desperation, I consult the dictionary again.  This time, instead of “large” or “small,” I look up the word “big.”  (After all, what could a big dictionary be better at defining?)

“Big” is defined by the folks at Houghton Mifflin as, “Of considerable size, magnitude or extent; large.”  Size, magnitude, extent, large – nothing new here.  Big is large, and large is big./ For a moment, I’m disappointed.  But wait.  (There’s more!)   I look up “Considerable.”  The first definition of “considerable” is “large in amount, extent, or degree.” ( Arghhh!  Large means considerable, and considerable means large.  I feel like I’ve been here before.)  For a moment, I consider looking up the new words “amount” or “degree,” but I decide that effort won’t likely be useful.  Then my eyes fall on the second definition of “considerable.” 

“Worthy of consideration.” 

Ah! We’ve left the world of physical dimensions, some place outside the closed loop of size words. Am I finally on to something?  I look up “worthy.”    I find, “Useful.  The quality that renders something desirable, useful, or valuable.”

I think I’ve found the answer I’ve been looking for.  Something is “considerable” if it is worthy of consideration, and it is worthy of consideration if it is useful.  Size is indeed relative, but relative, primarily, to what I find useful

I recently watched Season Six of the survival series “Alone.”  (Synopsis: Ten people competing to survive in Ice Age conditions.) In that world, a moose was important, both because, unlike a squirrel,  it could kill you, and because, if you could kill it, it could feed you for a very long time.  The series contestants considered thirty-pound Northern Pike or lake trout more valuable than ten-pound rabbits, which were in turn more valuable as food than even smaller things like mice.  The closer in size something was to the contestants, the more nutrition it brought.  The more “worthy of their consideration” it was. 

The contestants on “Alone” embraced the value of living as our primitive ancestors did, and I find myself reflecting that it was this ancestral way of life that shaped our species’ understanding of words like “big” and “small.”  Pigs and cows and grizzly bears were more important than, say, mosquitoes. As human beings evolved, those who paid most attention to things about their own size — things between, say, the size of spiders and mastodons — survived and reproduced better than those who paid attention to grains of sand or the vastness of the Universe.  I conclude that, as we generally use the terms “small” and “large,” absent a context which suggests a different relative comparison (a car being small compared to other cars), the default meaning is not really relative to a some incalculable “average,” but relative to ourselves. That is, smaller or larger than we are.  I myself create my sense of the “average” size of things.  Things smaller than me are small, and things larger than me are large. Things are large or small relative to me. And from an evolutionary perspective, it is the things closest to my own size that are (subjectively) important to me.

But are pigs and grizzly bears really more important than mosquitoes, objectively?  Exploding supernovae and super massive black holes are not only extremely large.  Astronomers and cosmologists now tell us that if it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t exist, as they create the very elements from which we’re made.  Those who study life’s origins tell me all complex forms of life began when bacteria became essential parts of our cells, so we wouldn’t exist were it not for bacteria.  And the importance of bacteria is not just historical.  If, today, things like plankton and bacteria stopped being available as food for larger things, moving up the food chain, we’d have nothing to feed on ourselves.  And all the time, quantum physicists remind us that without things as small as quarks, we wouldn’t exist either.  

So it isn’t really true that lions, tigers and bears are most important to my existence.  Nor were they, in fact, most important to our ancestors’ existence.  From an evolutionary perspective, we succeeded by paying attention to things our own size, not because such things were more important to us, but because we could actually do something about them if we paid attention to them.  Evolution proved that paying attention to them was useful to our survival.

But if the issue is usefulness to me – whether I can put my understanding of something to use, to help me eat it or to keep me safe from it – which should I consider more worthy of consideration, more considerable in size, to my current life in the 21st century – a black hole, or a virus?  If the answer is that I can do more with my understanding of viruses than I can with my understanding of black holes, why do I think a black hole  more  worthy of my consideration – more considerable in magnitude —bigger — than a virus?

Our notions of smallness and bigness come from a time in our past when we could not deal effectively with things far smaller or larger than ourselves, a time when things our own size – the moose, the cow and grizzly bear – were most worthy of our consideration.  We could not concern ourselves in those days with virology or pandemics, with things as small as molecules of CO2 or as large as ozone layers or the acidity of the oceans. Thinking about viruses rather than grizzly bears would have been fatal in those days. But such things, both the very large and the very small, are beginning to enter our sphere of influence.  As science continues to broaden our understanding of the world, our ability to prosper (or not) in the face of things we previously thought too large, or too small, to matter, changes. Is it time, now, to revise our thinking about the meaning of words like “large” and “small”?

Being of Two Minds

                Nearly fifty years ago, I read Julian Jaynes’ book, the one with the imposing title, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  Immediately one of my favorites, it remains so to this day.  Drawing on ancient literature, archaeology, neuroscience and other sources, Jaynes focused on the nature of consciousness, theorizing (largely on the basis of evidence of “auditory hallucinations” in early mankind) that consciousness arose when the two hemispheres of the brain first started “talking to each other” across the corpus callosum.

                Jaynes’s theories were extremely popular at the time; then they were attacked and called all wrong; then they made somewhat of a comeback, with a society formed in Jaynes’ honor.  I’m not sure I want to know where his reputation stands today.  I loved the idea, and I wouldn’t want to be saddened once again to learn that his theories are all wrong, knowing that in another thirty years, they might be accepted again.  Thanks to Jaynes, I will go to my grave remembering and enjoying the image of the bicameral mind, and of the two halves of it talking to each other, as Jaynes suggested.

                “Hey there, stranger.”

                “What?  Did somebody say something?”

                “Yeah.  It’s me.”

                “What?  Who are you?”

                “I’m you, dummy.  The other half of you, anyway… It’s really time we started recognizing each other, and thinking of ourselves as one. Dont you think?”

                Quite often, I catch myself thinking of Jaynes’s bicameral mind.  How, when a thought passes through my consciousness, it’s as if I’m both a speaker and a listener. 

                “Should I post this thought on my blog this morning?” asks the speaker.

                “Sure, why not,” answers the listener.

                To me, all thoughts seem like conversations between the two halves of my brain.

                Now, I know that all brain phenomena can’t be explained by this two-brain theory.   Memory, for example, doesn’t seem to reside on one side of the brain, the subject of a search by the other.   You’ve got the name of your fifth grade art teacher on the tip of your tongue.  (Well, of course it’s not really on the tip of your tongue; we all know that memories are stored in the brain – but where in the brain?)  It sure seems that recollections are made up of elements scattered here and there – perhaps the audio track here and the video track there, but more likely, different elements scattered like the loose pieces of construction paper always scattered around Mrs. What’s-Her-Name’s floor. Still, even if the physical location of the elements aren’t confined to one side of the brain or the other, the conversation that goes on in the effort to retrieve the name could be a conversation between the two halves. 

                R: “She was the one with the dark brown hair, right?”

                L:  “Yeah.  Auburn, maybe.  With a splash of gray above one ear.”

                R: “Did her name start with a B?”

                L: “No, I don’t think so.  Seems to me it began with an S.

                R: “S – T maybe?  Stubbs?  Staub?  Straughan?“

                From the many times we’ve been frustrated by inability to recall things, we often share a sense that even if they don’t reside on opposite sides of the corpus collosum, the things we’re searching for reside in parts of our brains that exist elsewhere, even if invisible to the part that’s on the hunt.

                AS it happens, I’m content to let the mysteries of memory remain unsolved.  For at least one more day, I can simply accept that what we call memory can be in our brains, somewhere, theoretically retrievable but temporarily unknown to the conscious mind.

                What I can’t accept, even for one more day, is the mystery of the dream state.  And I’m thinking of a particular type of dream, a particular aspect of the dream state.  I’m thinking of this aspect because of the dream I was having less than five minutes before I started this post this morning.  The origins of this morning’s dream go back to Penny, a woman I last worked with over seventeen years ago.  Last month, I happened to return to my former place of employment for a meeting with my former boss.  As I sat in the lobby waiting, Penny walked in.  I immediately recognized her and said, “Hi, Penny, how’ve you been?” There’d been several hundred people who’d worked in that building when I last did, seventeen years earlier, and having never worked with Penny closely, I was rather impressed with myself that I could pull her name right out of the air like that.

                But then, this morning, there was this dream.  In the dream, there was Penny again.  And I recognized her face, and I knew who she was, but my former boss was asking me to remember her name – and I couldn’t.  It took me a long time, and a lot of help from my boss, but in the dream, I finally remembered it.

                Now, remember that I’d remembered Penny’s name so well for seventeen years that I could retrieve it instantaneously when, unexpectedly, I saw her last month.  It didn’t seem to be hidden away in the cobwebs somewhere.  If it had been so quickly retrievable for seventeen years, is it possible that, during the dream, part of my brain was fully aware of the name, and was scripting this dream like a stage play, while another part was playing the part of a brain that couldn’t remember?  Had my brain somehow divided itself, for story-telling purposes, into a part that remembered and a part that didn’t?

              Anyone who’s ever had difficulty recalling something for a second or two may be inclined to feel that my dream this morning represented nothing more than the usual process of working to retrieve a memory, beginning with an inability to recall her name, then employing whatever processes the mind usually employs in its efforts to recall, and ending with success in the effort.   If this is what was going on in the dream, the dream could have ended the way waking efforts to remember things often do – with failure.  Nothing unusual here.  The dream state is subject to the same difficulty remember things as the waking state is, and its  efforts to remember things utilize the same or very similar strategies.

             But is it possible that my dreaming mind this morning was divided into two parts: a part that did know the name, and another part that didn’t? A story-telling part, that wanted to go on a ride through a process of remembering something, and choosing the story of Penny because it wanted wanted a successful outcome, and knew that with Penny, the outcome would be successful, because that part – the story-teller part – knew the woman’s name was Penny, and that part of my brain planned all along to end the dream with that revelation?

  And I actually think this may be closer to what really happens in at least some dreams, and my reasons are rooted in a similar, though slightly more elaborate, dream I had three or four months ago. Unlike my dream about Penny, that dream was longer, consisting of numerous scenes.  And in that dream, too, I was trying to identify something, starting from ignorance and ending up satisfied by understanding.  Early in it, I’d been told by an agent behind the counter of a rental car agency that the car I’d reserved had been taken, earlier that day, by a relative of mine.  When I asked who, he said the name had included the letter O.  I thought of names beginning with O, but there were no Ozzies or O’Briens in the family.  I thought of my cousins Joe and Lorin and Bobby, but no, said the man behind the counter, it wasn’t them.  After a while, another man told me that the name also included a G.  I had no relatives named Ogden, so I told the man it must have been one of my many cousins whose middle or last names were Logan. Once again, however, I was informed that I was wrong. Eventually, other people appeared in the dream supplying the letters N, U and Y, and by the end of the dream, I realized that the man I’d been trying to identify was a second cousin named Wendell, whose last name was Young. 

                In the dream, the revelation took me by surprise.  But what had me puzzled for days, and still has me wondering, is how the dream was even possible.  As the dreamer, I had no idea where the dream was headed when it began. Not until it ended did the clues make any sense.  Yet, as the spinner of the tale, as the “writer of the story,” so to speak, some part of my brain had to know where everything was headed from the outset.  Back when the man behind the counter was telling me it was a relative with an O in his name, the “writer of the story” knew, even if I did not.

                The reader of a mystery novel is ignorant at first, puts together clues, and finally connects the dots somewhere along the way – if not, he’s given the answer at the end, by the writer..  But mystery novels aren’t written that way.  The writer has typically known “who done it” since the first clue was inconspicuously mentioned back in Chapter One.  I understand how this workers with mystery novels, because you have two different minds at work – the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.  But is the same true in dreams?  How was it possible, in my dream, for that man behind the counter to know that my relative’s name included a an O, at the beginning of the dream, unless he already knew the end of the dream?  And if he knew the end in advance, why didn’t I? 

                The only explanation I can think of is that the dreaming mind is really two minds, the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader.  That when we dream, we see ourselves walking (or flying?)  through a world with less than complete understanding, a world in which a lot more is known by a different mind which, though presumably also resident in our brain, knows far more than we do about the world – perhaps, even both the “real” world and the one in which the dream takes place. This “writer” ho knows more than we, the reader know, is intentionally giving us only part of what we see in the dream, the same way a mystery writer does, doling out information at the right time, to enhance the story.

                Some may think of this as evidence of God.  Part of me wonders that too. But more often, such phenomena make me think of my love for Jaynes’ theory about the Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

                I guess you could say I’m of two minds about it, eh?

                Yeah. I think so.

Sweetgrass

This Wednesday morning, I leave for Morocco.  People often ask why we should travel to foreign countries.  “There’s so much beauty our own country we have yet to see,” they point out.  My reply has long been that, for me, the best thing about travel is finding places as different as possible from what I’ve grown accustomed to.  My default condition is that I’ve evolved to follow paths of least resistance – which is to say, I act  like a river, rolling downhill within the banks, powered by my own inertia.  I like travel best when it forces me out of such ruts.

I’ve written before about the concept Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATS, the illusion that “what you see is all there is.”  Kahneman describes “the remarkable asymmetry between the ways our mind treats information that is currently available and information we do not have.”  That’s why I love astronomers and astrophysicists so much: keenly aware of how vast the universe is, they’re constantly reminded how little information is currently available.  They talk about the huge unanswered questions.  They point to things they believed five years ago, only to learn they were wrong.  Traveling within my own country, just like reading the books of my own culture or conversing only with folks who share my religion or my politics, ensures that I will continue to base my understanding of reality on that tiny fraction of facts I can actually see – the facts I have always seen, because they share my rut.

A good friend of mine asks why I spend more time questioning the precepts of Christianity, capitalism, and American democracy than I do the precepts of Buddhism, communism, or the United Republic of Tanzania.  It’s not because I favor other systems or countries over those in which I’ve been raised.  On the contrary, it is because I see the greatest danger of falling into the WYSIATI rut with respect to the inherited beliefs I’ve spent a lifetime immersed in, unless I question them.  (And I have faith that whatever’s good in them will stand up just fine to my scrutiny.)

It is because of this that I have been so moved by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (Milkweed, 2013).  Reading it challenged not just my ideas about capitalism, ecology, and science, but the underlying ethics of everything I believe. 

The book may not present a panacea for the ills of the world.  But it did strike at the roots of my belief in Christianity, Democracy, Capitalism, the Enlightenment, Private Property, Western Science – all the basic systems of American thought that have claimed me as one of their own.  And the ironic thing is that I didn’t have to travel to Jupiter to get it, or even to Morocco – Kimmerer is a native American.  Her message is native American.  It grows from the roots of the land I’ve always called home.

So I write not to argue that Kimmerer’s views about science, economics, etc. are right, or better, than those I’ve grown up with.  Just that they are very different – and therefore, for me, profoundly thought provoking.  I especially love how she ties the way she thinks to her native American creation story.  I’d never realized how much the story of Adam and Eve – first heard, I suspect, when I was still wearing diapers – explains the rest of the world in which I’ve been living, and thereby forms the foundation of everything about my relationship to it.

In Kimmerer’s traditional native American creation story, Skywoman finds herself falling from some unknown place high up in the sky.  She is saved from a death-splat on the hard earth when a gaggle of geese fly up to meet her and break her fall.  One by one, the other animals welcome and seek to help her.  She ends up feeling a debt of gratitude to them, a responsibility to reciprocate.  She plants a garden with which to help feed the other animals.  Skywoman, in this creation story, is a newcomer who learns about the world from other living things, creatures who have been here far longer than she has, creatures who have much wisdom to impart.

How different is the story of Genesis, of God creating the whole world just for Man, telling him that he is made in the very image of God, that his wisdom is second only to God’s.  How different is Genesis, in which Man is charged with giving names to the animals, than the native American story of Nanabozho, in which Man is charged with the responsibility of learning the names of the plants and animals around him.  How different is our Judaeo-Christian teaching that other living things have been provided for us to put to our own uses.  How different the idea that we are here on earth as mere temporary visitors, briefly passing through on our way to eternal homes in Heaven, at the right hand of God.

As every landlord knows, temporary renters sometimes think differently than residents whose children will live in their homes for generations to come.  Not surprisingly, when we think of ourselves as recent arrivals in a world populated by others for millennia, we may end up thinking differently than if we see ourselves as owners of a place where everything else has been put here just for us, and which we will soon be leaving. 

In the Judaeo-Christian creation story, everything from the sun and the stars was created in just seven days, and Man – created that first week – has been at the top of the heap for thousands of years since.  How different when we think of a Universe that is fourteen billion years old, into which homo sapiens made his appearance in the last ten millionth of that time.   As Kimmerer says, the Skywoman story captures the idea that “we humans are the newest arrivals on earth, the youngsters, just learning to find our way.”

The implications of the native American worldview for ecology may resound more with some (like me) than with others.  Personally, I sense a kindred spirit when Kimmerer asks me to imagine an America focused less on a Bill of Rights and more on a Bill of Responsibilities.  I suspect many of my spiritually-inclined friends would smile with me when Kimmerer – a scientist – writes critically of the “unblinking assumption that science has cornered the market on truth,” or observes that “[w]e are all the product of our worldviews – even scientists who claim pure objectivity.”

But what I find most alluring is how Kimmerer portrays the native American mindset as steeped in humility. 

 After describing vast and complex communications among the trees in a forest – communications that Western science is only beginning to understand –  Kimmerer writes, “There is so much we cannot yet sense with our limited human capacity.  Tree conversations are still far above our heads.”

And, “[A]s a scientist, I am well aware of how little we do know.”

And, “We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us.  We don’t have to figure out everything by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us… We have an opportunity to learn from them, to understand ourselves as students of nature, not the masters.  The very best scientists are humble enough to listen… [I]t takes humility to learn from other species.” 

Indeed – doesn’t it take humility to learn from other religious traditions, from other political parties, from other anything?  Quite often, as I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I found myself wondering whether I was stretching Kimmerer’s points too far, to support my own views.  Kimmerer was thinking of other species when she wrote, “Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.”  I found myself applying that same sentiment to understanding members of our own species in political discourse.  So too with another of her observations: Kimmerer describes being out in the rain, observing and listening, but I read more into her statement: “Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own.  Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop.”

I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass. There was a great deal in it that I will never be able to forget.  And as I look forward to Morocco, I am especially looking forward to the night we will spend in the tent, in the Sahara, where the dryness of the desert will have removed so much moisture from the air, making the sky clear.  It’s supposed to provide one of the best views of the Milky Way from anywhere on earth. 

I hope to be awestruck, humbled by the vastness of things unknown.

Your Daily Dilemma

You’re approaching a door. 

Not one of those modern supermarket doors with motion sensors that open automatically, but  one of those plain old doors with an old-fashioned brass knob you actually have to turn.

Cradled in your right arm, you are carrying a large bag full of groceries.

In your left hand, you are carrying a Slurpee (or a Slushee, or whatever they call them).  By whatever name, it is a large styrofoam cup (bad for the environment), with a thin plastic lid (bad for the environment) and a plastic straw (the type that kills innocent birds), the liquid contents of which you have already mostly consumed (to the detriment of your gut health).  But the styrofoam cup is still full of ice and a couple ounces of a chemical-laden soft drink which, if consumed, will only further poison you.

But enough of that.  The immediate problem facing you is how to open the door.

To open the door with your right hand you’d have to put the bag of groceries down.  At your age, given the condition of your back, this isn’t as easy as it once was.  You might strain your back, or even fall and break your hip.   And if you put the bag down, it might fall over, spilling out all that marvelous junk food you were so looking forward to.  Is the dog around?  How much of it will he get, before you can stop him?

To open the door with your left hand, you’d either have to put the soft drink on the ground – risking problems similar to those just described, though not exactly the same  – or trying to turn the knob with the drink still in hand, hoping to turn the knob without spilling the drink.  But of course, if you spill the drink, there’s a floor to clean…

Which hand do you use to open the door?

Stop.  Really.  Stop and reflect on it.  Which hand would you use?

Some people would say the correct answer is the right hand.  Others would say the left.

But these people have been raised in a different world than mine – one in which there are only two answers, right or left. 

And whether they’ve chosen the right or the left, they feel quite sure that they have made the only sensible choice.

In my world, there are many, many options available.  And even if it were a simple choice between right and left (which it hardly ever is), there are so many unknowns, ramifications, risks, possibilities and preferences to consider, that it’s really all very subjective. I mean, maybe it would be better for the dog to eat the Twinkies, rather than you…

How is it even possible to think one choice “right,” and the other “wrong”?

How is it possible to think someone who chooses differently than you is either stupid or evil?

Ya got me.  Maybe, as kids, we all just drank too much Kool-Aid.

Wrong Parking Space

Fifteen years ago, I quit taking statins for high cholesterol; I’ve been resisting doctors’ pleas to resume them ever since. For several years now, the doctors have been recommending high blood pressure medication too. Dutifully, I added that recommendation to the list of those I respectfully decline to follow.

But this spring, a series of developments finally reduced (wore down?) my resistance. I’d felt some minor chest pains (more like muscle strain than anything serious) but after that, I began to notice that my blood pressure was way up. My wind was also down. Anyway, last week, I succumbed to an appointment with a cardiologist. The cardiologist insisted I come back for a nuclear stress test. The test was scheduled for this morning.

So I drive to the hospital. I pull into the parking garage and begin searching for an empty spot. The first level is full, so when I find an empty space on the second level, I start pulling into it – only to see a sign informing me that the space is reserved for the elderly. Dutifully, respectfully, I start to pull out of the space, until I happen to glance back at the sign.

“RESERVED – FOR SENIORS, AGE 65 AND UP.”

After a lifetime of being young, I know that reserved spaces are for other people, not me. Right?

But I’ll be 69 next month.

Humbled yet again, I pulled back into the space – apparently, the space where I belong.

– Joe

You Never Know

I haven’t written for a while.  I haven’t had anything new I felt compelled to say.  One school says blogs need to be written regularly, at least once a week, so that readers will form the habit of opening and reading them.  But I think that’s modern business BS talking – the folks who gave us spam and robocalls. I side with the other school, the one that believes in delivering value.  As I look back at my past posts, I see some that lacked it.  I never should have posted them.  I don’t want to add to an unwanted glut, for the sake of regularity.

Another reason I haven’t posted recently is that three longer writing projects have taken hold of me again. Two of them relate to the We May Be Wrong theme, so I haven’t lost interest in WMBW.  I’m just not ready to describe what those longer projects are about.  They’ll have to speak for themselves, when they’re ready.  I hope you find them engaging, when it’s time.

Meanwhile, here, I’ll just share a few odds and ends.

1. I love my TV science shows, especially those about the Universe and Astrophysics.  More than any other group I know, astronomers astrophysicists seem willing to admit the vastness of the things we do not know.  In just the past few months, I’ve learned so much about the errors of past truths I once was told was fact. Current theory tells us that we do have nine planets after all, that our solar system once had two suns, that there are super big black holes at the center of every galaxy, that there are tiny black holes in lots of nearby places that are super hard to detect, that there’s one black hole bearing down on us that may suck us up or gobble up the sun and spin us off into frigid space, and that we’d have no way to spot it until it was just three years away. My favorite admission of all is that most of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy –just labels the physicists give to things they know absolutely nothing about.

2. A year or so ago, when I decided to watch TV news again, I sampled various sources in search of neutral reporting.  The closest I came was CBS’s Evening News with Jeff Glor.  So in the months since then, I watched Jeff Glor’s broadcast every night.  For the most part, I thought the broadcast reported the news neutrally.   Last week, CBS discontinued the show due to low ratings.  (Imagine that!  Wonder why?) Trying to interpret the PR lingo explaining CBS’s thinking makes me worry that CBS has given in.  That to increase  its viewership, it has decided to report “stories” designed  to arouse passions, as opposed to neutral news.  If this is what has happened, I mourn the loss and fear the aftermath.  If we end up with a liberal media reporting only liberal truths to liberal viewers, and a conservative media reporting only conservative truths to conservative viewers, the ideal of a unified, inclusive America will not be possible.  How can we survive if we take our facts from entirely different places?

3.  In the past few months, I’ve thought I could give my support to a Centralist party, if one existed.  It’s platform would say nothing of specific issues.  It’s promise would simply be to keep an open mind, to be inclusive, and to search out compromise between extremes.  I genuinely think that, as a process, that’s as important as any specific issue.  That it’s the only way for us to survive. If a candidate adopted such a set of promises, he or she would have my vote.

4. This week’s news reported that Joe Biden is talking about unity, intending to run for President as the candidate of the middle.  If that bears out in the months to come, he may end up getting my vote!  Imagine that!

5. Years ago, in the Publix cafeteria, absorbed in a lunch time conversation about writing, I opined that a good story-teller can make a good story out of anything – even a door knob.  I don’t know why the doorknob came to mind – probably because of the phrase, “dead as a doorknob.”   But in the twenty years since, I’ve had occasion to make the same observation  repeatedly – that even the dullest things contain with them something from which a talented story-teller could create an engaging story.  And I’ve always phrased it the same away, “even stories about door knobs.”   Well, this morning, I challenged myself.  In the two hours since, I’ve entertained a slew of thoughts about how to write an engaging story about a doorknob.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s worth a try.

6.  If you can make an engaging story about a doorknob, surely you can attract readers with neutral reporting about real news. Maybe that, too, is worth a try?

7. Who knows what surprises the year ahead may bring!  A resurgence in interest in neutral reporting? Yours truly supporting Joe Biden for President?   A fascinating story, debuting right here in this blog, about  a doorknob?   

Like the astrophysicists say, you never know.

— Joe

The Ice Tower

The aim of WMBW is to explore wrongness – ways of being wrong, reasons for being wrong, reasons we persist in wrongness, etc.  But ultimately, wrongness isn’t the only reason we should be humble.  Simple ignorance is another.

As children, we’re used to not knowing all the answers.  When a teacher or parent first tells us that bees make honey or that the moon revolves around the earth, we accept such revelations easily, because we haven’t already formed contrary opinions.  But as we get older, learning more and more about the things that comprise our daily lives, we start to learn new things less often.  That experience, I think, leads us to form a very false impression that we already know most of what there is to know. 

I mean, sure, maybe we don’t know about astrophysics and quarks, maybe not about the history of medieval Bulgaria or the tonal qualities of Mandarin. We acknowledge there are some things we don’t know.  But our daily lives don’t require us to know about quarks or the history of medieval Bulgaria.  What we do encounter, day in and day out, holds few surprises. I already know how ladders work, and traffic lights, and can openers, and flush toilets, and the hinges on doors. I already know my wife’s name, and what time we usually eat dinner, and where the trash can is, and – well, pretty much everything I encounter in my day to day life.

This adult “state of knowing answers” gradually comes to replace the childhood “state of ignorance.”  Especially if we’re parents, or teachers, we get used to informing our children or students about the way things are.  It’s the very definition, perhaps, of being an adult, that we know what we need to know about the world around us. 

Lately, I’ve enjoyed asking myself this question: “Of all the things in the universe that might be known, how much of it do I actually know?”  If I’d started asking myself that question at the age of six, I think my answer then might have been around 5%. If I’d kept on asking it, I think my answer might have risen to about 40 or 50% in my late teens. These days, I’d wonder how many scores of zeroes there ought to be between the decimal point and whatever nanogram of real knowledge I might have acquired about the world as a whole..

But helpful as it might be, the problem with that exercise is that it’s like standing on a beach,  looking across the ocean, and trying to estimate how big the ocean is, based on what we can see.  It’s hard enough to estimate the size of what we can see, as far as the horizon, but more fundamentally, it’s simply not possible to estimate the size of what we can’t see, beyond the horizon.  So the abstract question, “How much do I know of all there is to know?” is really of limited value.   We can’t estimate the size of what we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as I get older, my daily life encounters include fewer and fewer things that I don’t know anything about.  So inevitably, I think, I’m seduced into the false impression that I mostly understand the world. 

So, perhaps more valuable than pondering the scope of what we don’t know are those occasions in life when something falls from the sky, lands in our lap or smacks us in the face that we simply can’t explain. My recent confrontation with the ice tower was one of those things.

Karen and I love to watch the cardinals, chickadees, titmice and wrens that our back yard bird feeder and bird bath attract. The bird bath is an enameled metal dish, about two or three inches deep and about twenty four inches across.  It sits on a stand about three feet off the ground.  We clean the water of debris from time to time, changing it so the birds will have clean water to  drink and bathe in.  But when winter brings cold spells, the water freezes into a solid block of ice. 

In ten winters of looking at that bird bath, I’d often seen it freeze over, but I’d never seen anything like what I saw a few days ago.  Something was sticking up, vertically, close to the outside rim – maybe eight or ten inches higher than the rest of the ice.  My first thought was that it was a bird, light in color – like a dove or a mocking bird, perhaps – but it seemed whiter than white – almost clear, like an icicle.   And as I watched from the kitchen window, it didn’t move. Surely, no bird could have fallen asleep at the water’s edge and become frozen solid. 

Curiosity getting the better of me, I went outside for a closer look. What I found I couldn’t explain.  The birdbath was frozen, as I expected.  The surface of the ice block that now occupied the bath was a flat horizontal plane, as it had always been in the past, like a miniature skating rink – except for the vertical protrusion I’d mistaken for a white bird.  Closer inspection revealed that it was, in fact, a little cylindrical tower of ice, about an inch and a half or two inches in diameter, that projected vertically eight or ten inches above the horizontal surface.  A little ice sculpture model of the leaning tower of Pisa? 

I touched it to confirm that it was, indeed, ice.  I wondered what had caused the little tower to form, rising so high above the surface.  I took some pictures of it.

There were no trees, roofs or other overhangs above the birdbath, so I concluded the tower had not been formed from anything dripping from above, like stalagmites are formed. There were no cracks in the ice or other signs of fracture that would suggest the frozen tower had landed in the horizontal ice, sticking like a javelin in the ground.  There was nothing beneath the tower that would suggest it was rooted in anything but the ice block itself.  It wasn’t like separate pieces had become stuck together the way ice cubes might stick together in your freezer or in a bag of ice bought at the Quickie Mart.  Every surface was smooth. This little tower seemed at one with the block of ice from which it protruded, as if they’d been formed together.

But even if a waterfall can freeze solid in the midst of its descent, how could this water have frozen solid, in the tower shape it now held?  I called the grandchildren over, challenging them to explain the phenomenon we all could see, promising a prize for whoever could come up with a plausible theory.  In the process, we noticed what seemed at first glance like a feather in the middle of the tower, captured like some prehistoric bug in a piece of amber.  I took another photo, trying to capture the appearance of the “feather.”

Jacob theorized that the tower had been formed when a bird who’d come to bathe had gotten a wing stuck in the frozen ice.  When it pulled itself free, it had left that single feather stuck in the ice.  But the “feather,” I pointed out, did not appear to be arranged in a flat plane, like any normal feather.  Its parts radiated in all directions from the center, like the bristles of a bottle brush.  That, and the inherent implausibility of Jacob’s explanation, prevented me from awarding him the prize right way.  Doubting his “stuck bird” theory, I did wonder if an actual feather had landed in the freezing water, had remained upright, and had somehow been made to radiate like the bristles of a bottle brush as it got encased in the tower of ice.  After a couple of days, though, the whole feather theory melted away with the ice. There was no feather left behind when the ice departed.

So there we have it.  As of this writing, the tower remains a mystery to me.  My vague partial theory is that some sort of gas in the water (or from the enameled metal bottom of the bird bath) had started to rise in that particular spot just as the water froze.  That the gas kept on rising while the ice was still “semi-frozen” enough to be malleable.  The bristles of the bottle brush did look like paths taken by gas bubbles radiating from a central trunk, like the branches of a Christmas tree. But whether the “rising gas” theory makes any sense is beyond my understanding of what happens when ice forms, and why I’d never seen such a tower before, and what sort of gas might have formed bubbles in a bottle brush formation, and more.

Among the small but learned group of scholars and philosophers who read this blog, there’s probably a natural philosopher among you who can explain the appearance of the ice tower.  I am tempted to offer a prize, like I did with my grandkids, for the most plausible explanation. If you are as ignorant of such things as I am, I’m sure I’d be amazed at your creativity.  So please tell me what you think! 

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I really want to know the truth.  I mean, what good will it do me? Satisfy my craving for knowledge? Preserve my self-image as someone who knows what’s really going on in the world he inhabits? Perhaps the best explanation for my ice tower is that it came from the fairy world, a gift from some wise creature who figured I’ve gotten too old, that I already think I know too much.  Perhaps I should just hang the pictures above my desk as a reminder of the many things out there I can never hope to understand, even just outside my kitchen window. 

– Joe

The Bias Blind Spot

In my novel, Alemeth, I told the story of an ante-bellum family who ran a cotton plantation in Mississippi.  They owned sixty African-American slaves.  Their belief in the righteousness of the southern cause was based on their view that slavery was sanctioned by Holy Scripture.  Essentially, they believed that God had charged them with a duty to perpetuate the peculiar institution.

One of the mysteries that attracted me to this true story was how so many people could have been wrong about an institution which, today, nearly all mankind agrees is evil.  I wanted to understand how their wrongness came to be.  Of course, this family was not alone.  Their neighbors, their churches, their doctors, their lawyers, their newspapermen, shared their views.  At the risk of gross oversimplification, it is at least roughly true that about twenty million northerners thought slavery wrong, and five or six million southerners thought it right. 

I’m not talking about related questions, like whether slavery was worth going to war over, or whether it justified secession; I’m not talking about whether there were some in the north who supported slavery, or who were racists, or whether there were individual abolitionists in the south. I’m talking about whether people thought slavery was an evil that should be immediately abolished or that it was an economic necessity that ought to be preserved for the foreseeable future – and on that point, the people of the South showed amazing agreement with each other.  One indication of just how geographically lopsided the distribution of opinions was: the large number of Christian church denominations that split into separate northern and southern churches over the slavery question.

If every person had simply thought out the rightness and wrongness of it for himself, there’d have been a thorough mixture of opinions in every state, north and south. Differences as to details notwithstanding, the geographically lopsided distribution of opinions  as to the central question that was a necessary condition for civil war convinces me that something else was going on. 

How was it that nearly all the good white people lived up north, and nearly all the bad ones lived in the south? 

Okay, not really.  I know that couldn’t be true. So I wonder, how did it happen that nearly all the smart people lived up north, and all the stupid ones lived in the south? 

Okay, really, not that either.  While mulling this mystery over, my daughter Jen forwarded me a blog by someone I don’t know – his name is Sean Blanda – called “The ‘Other Side’ is Not Dumb.”  https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.blt9vqmzr.   I think Sean is right.  On average, surely the people of the south were as good, and as smart, as their northern counterparts.  So perhaps, being “right” or “wrong” has little to do with how smart you are?  Or how good you are?

Was it self-interest, tradition and peer pressure that caused the people of the south to descend into such widespread error?   A sort of groupthink, perhaps, arising from common backgrounds and perspectives?.  Fair enough.  But what, then, about the beliefs of those in the North?  Was the correct position of the north regarding slavery due to an absence of groupthink, self-interest, and peer pressure there?  Was the south riddled with conditions that contributed to southern bias, while the north was able to arrive at the “right” answer because it was free of any such influences?

Maybe so.  Maybe we could all agree about the errors and biases of the south, now that we all agree about the evils of slavery.  But what of those controversies on which we don’t yet agree?  In political election cycles, the country always seems split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.  Is it possible that one side’s views are explained in terms of cultural bias, but the other side’s views are not?  According to the Pew Research Center, about 30% of the World’s population is Christian, and a similar portion (about 22%) is Muslim.  Is it possible that the 30% is simply better informed than the 22%?  That the 22% are smarter than the 30%?  That one view is the result of cultural biases and the happenstance of birthplace and family influence, but the other view is not?  Are the debates over gun control, abortion, global warming, Vegan diets and same sex marriage, debates between smart people and stupid people?  Between the good people and the bad people?

Finally, what are the odds that, on each and every issue, it’s ME who recognizes the truth (because it really is the truth), while my opponents’ incorrectness can be explained by bias? 

In Being Wrong (Harper Collins, 2010), Kathryn Schulz writes, “Let’s say that I believe that drinking green tea is good for my health.  Let’s also say that I’ve been drinking three cups of green tea a day for twenty years, that I come from a long line of green tea drinkers, and that I’m the CEO of a family-owned corporation, Green Tea International.  An impartial observer would instantly recognize that I have three very compelling reasons to believe in the salubrious effects of green tea, none of which have anything to do with whether those effects are real…  I have powerful social, psychological, and practical reasons to believe in the merits of green tea.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it?  In the example just given, Schulz is writing about what would be obvious to an impartial observer.  But more important is what’s obvious to partial observers – to those who are convinced that the other side is wrong.  If we’re talking about people we’re convinced are wrong (like those who supported slavery) it’s natural to believe that their views are shaped by – and therefore depend on – their peculiar life experiences.  Yet when it comes to the things we have decided we’re right about, we ‘re unable to see that our beliefs are a function of own life experiences in the same way.  Because we believe that the Statue of Liberty really towers above New York Harbor, we believe it is objectively real, regardless of our subjective perspective, culture, or bias. To us, everything that’s “obviously true” is like another Statute of Liberty. 

“Sure, it may be that my father was a civil rights activist and my mother worked for George McGovern, but I hold my liberal views because they are objectively right…”  Or, “Sure, it may be I grew up reading the Christian Bible, but my faith in Jesus has nothing to do with that happenstance; I have faith in Jesus because he has revealed himself to me…”  When people believe that something is true, they believe it not because of anything about themselves or their own backgrounds, they believe it because – well, because it’s true.

Simultaneously, because we believe that slavery was wrong, we are quick to conclude that those who supported it only did so because of such a cultural bias.  This readiness to see bias as being the reason for the (erroneous) beliefs of others, while being unable to see that bias may explain why we ourselves believe certain things, is something professional psychologists call the “bias blind spot.” A quick Google search on “the bias blind spot” reveals a host of scientific studies regarding this phenomenon.  Many have shown it to be true: we are quick to ascribe bias (from whatever source) to those we disagree with, while denying it in ourselves.

In a May, 2005 article in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Ehrlinger, Glovich, & Ross, “Peering into the Bias Blind Spot: People’s Assessments of Bias in Themselves and Others”), the authors explored two empirical consequences of the phenomenon: First, that people are more inclined to think they are guilty of bias in the abstract than in any specific instance.  (“Sure, I recognize that I’m capable of bias; but doggone it, not when it comes to this.”)  Second, that people tend to believe that their own personal connection to a given issue is a source of accuracy and enlightenment – while simultaneously believing that such personal connections by those who hold different views are a source of bias. 

I find the second point especially interesting.  Think about it:  As to the beliefs I hold most dear on some controversial subject, do I have personal experiences that are relevant?  If so, do I consider those personal experiences as giving me special insights into the matter?  Now ask the same question about the typical person on the other side of that issue.  Do the reasons for their error lie at least in part in their different experiences?  Do I not see those experiences as providing valuable insights, but as reasons to explain away their error?  Personally, I’ve been guilty of this double standard often. 

Schulz points out that when we try to understand how people disagree with us, our first tendency is to assume they don’t have all the information we have – something Schulz calls the Ignorance Assumption. So we try to educate them.  If our efforts to educate them don’t work, if they adhere to their mistaken beliefs even after we’ve given them the benefit of our own information and experiences, then we decide they must be less able than we are to properly evaluate the evidence.  (In other words, we decide they just not as smart as we are – Schulz’s “Idiocy Assumption.”)  Finally, if we become convinced they’re actually smart people, we find ourselves considering them morally flawed –selfish at best, just plain rotten at worst (Schulz’s “Evil Assumption.”)

At the end of the day, it might just be that I’m right about a few things.  But if so, I doubt it’s because I’m smarter, or a better person, than those on the other side.  And it’s certainly not because I have no cultural biases of my own.

I’ll end by quoting Schulz one more time: “If we assume that people who are wrong are ignorant, or idiotic, or evil – well, small wonder that we prefer not to confront the possibility of error in ourselves.”

– Joe

The Biggest Delusion of All

When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to Texas to work on my grandfather’s ranch.  The first job would be to paint the fence around the field between his house and the road.    When I asked what else I’d be doing, he replied, “Let’s see how long it takes to paint the fence.”  Two months later, having painted for eight hours a day, I returned home, the job of painting the fence still not finished.

The word “comprehend” means taking something in all at once.  Since flat land let me see that fence all at once, it seemed comprehensible.  In fact, if I held my two thumbs in front of my face, I could make the fence  seem to fit between them.  So thinking it might take a few days to paint the fence seemed reasonable.  Problem was, my brain does tricks with perspective.   In reality, that field was probably close to ten acres, the fence probably ten football fields long.  “Comprehension” of very large things requires large scale trickery.  It depends on deception.

I should have known better than to trust my brain about the fence.   My teacher Paul Czaja had told our class the story of the Emperor’s chessboard and the grains of rice: the Emperor said that if a single grain of rice were placed on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, and so on, until the 64th square, the final square would require enough rice to stretch to the moon and back seven times.

The story of the Emperor and his grains of rice “wowed” me with the power of exponential growth.  I knew the moon was far away, and a grain of rice very small.  Stretching back and forth seven times had to make it a very large number indeed.

Of course I wanted to know what the total number of rice grains was in numbers I could understand.  Rather than simply give his class the answer, Paul asked us to compute the number ourselves.  Our homework was simply to multiply by two sixty-three times.

If Paul had told us that the total grains on the chessboard came to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, I’d have realized that the number was larger than any I’d ever seen – but my brain would have attempted to make sense of the number’s “bigness” in the same way it had made sense of the fence in Texas – namely, by making it appear far smaller than it really was.   The only way to see a huge field was to make it seem small enough to fit between two thumbs.  The only way to make such a large number seem comprehensible is to reduce it to funny little shapes on a page that we call numerals.

Upon seeing that large number on the page, my brain immediately perceives it’s large, because it is physically longer than most numbers I see.   But how large? If it takes up two inches on the page, my brain suggests it’s twice as long as a one-inch long number, the same way a two-inch worm is twice as large as a one-inch worm.    But my schooling tells me that’s wrong, so I count the digits – all twenty of them.   Since twenty apples is twice as many as ten apples, and since my brain has spent years making such comparisons, my intuition suggests that a twenty digit number is twice as large as a ten digit number.  But I “know” (in the sense of having been told otherwise) that’s not right.

But here’s my real question: if my intuition is wrong, is it even possible for me to “know”  how wrong? Does “calculation”: amount to “comprehension”?

Psychologists tell me my brain is useful in this inquiry only because it tricks me into seeing the distorted, shrunken  “mini-icon” versions of things – numerals and digits, rather than the actual quantities themselves.  If we’re asked to describe what it feels like to be alive for a million years, we can’t.  We’ll never be able to.  And for the same reasons, it seems to me, we can’t “comprehend” the reality of 264, only the icons we can comprehend – the mental constructs that only work because they’re fakes.

Consider the Emperor’s assertion that the rice would be enough to go to the moon and back seven times.  That mental  image impressed me.  It made the size of 264 seem far more real than it would have if I’d merely seen the twenty digits on a page.  But do I really comprehend the distance between the moon and the earth?

The moon’s craters make it look like a human face.  I can recognize faces nearly a hundred yards away.  So… is my brain telling me that the moon is a hundred yards away?

I’ve seen the models of lunar orbit in science museums – the moon the size of a baseball two or three feet away from an earth the size of a basketball.  My brain is accustomed to dealing with baseballs and basketballs.    I can wrap my brain around (“comprehend”) two or three feet.  So when I try to imagine rice extending between earth and moon seven times, I relate the grains of rice to such “scientific models.”

But is that , too, an exercise designed to trick me into thinking  I “understand”?  Is it like making a fenced field seem like it could fit between my two thumbs?

I have little doubt that analogies seem to help.  Consider that a million seconds (six zeros) is 12 days, while a billion seconds (nine zeros) is 31 years and a trillion seconds (twelve zeros) is 31,688 years.  Wow.  That helps me feel like I understand.  Or consider that a million hours ago, Alexander Graham Bell was founding AT&T, while a billion hours ago, man hadn’t yet walked on earth.  A billion isn’t twice as big as ten thousand, it’s a hundred thousand times bigger.

Such mental exercises add to our feeling that we understand these big numbers.  They certainly “wow” me.  But is this just more deception?

Distrusting my brain’s suggestions, I decide to do some calculations of my own. A Google search and a little math tell me that seven trips to the moon and back would be about 210 billion inches.  Suppose the grains of rice are each a quarter inch long.   The seven round trips would therefore require 840 billion grains of rice.  The math is simple.  If there’s anything my brain can handle, it’s simple math.  Digits make it easy to do calculations.  But does my ability to do calculations mean I achieve comprehension?

Thinking that it might, I multiply a few more numbers.  My calculations show me that the Emperor’s explanation of his big number was not only wrong, but very wrong.  The number of grains of rice on the chessboard would actually go to the moon and back not seven times, and not even seven thousand times, but more than 150 million times!

Such a margin of error is immense. I don’t think I could mistake a meal consisting of 7 peas for a meal consisting of 150 million peas. I don’t think I could mistake a musical performance lasting seven minutes for a musical performance lasting 150 million minutes. What conclusion should I draw from the fact that I could, and did, fail to realize the difference between seven trips to the moon and back, and 150 million trips?

The conclusion I draw strikes me as profound.  It is that I have no real  “comprehension”  of the size of such numbers.    I’ve retold Paul’s chessboard story for fifty years without ever once supposing that the Emperor’s “seven times to the moon and back” might be wrong.  Could there be any better evidence that I have no real sense of the numbers, no real sense of the distances involved?  The fact that I can’t really appreciate the difference between  two such large numbers tells me that I’ve exceeded the limits of any real understanding.   My brain can comprehend baseballs and basketballs.  Using simple tools like a decimal number system, I can do calculations.    But when I try to comprehend the difference between 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 and 18,446,744,073,709,551,615,000,000, am I really able to understand what it means to say that the second number is a million times larger than the first?

I got my first glimpse of the difference between “calculating” and “comprehending” about five minutes into Paul’s homework  assignment.  Just five minutes into my calculations, my brain was already playing tricks on me.  Pencil in hand, there were already  too many numbers going around in my head.  I was (literally) dizzy from arithmetic overload.   I made errors;  I began to slow down, to be more careful.  The numbers were already absurdly large.   Five minutes after starting with a sharp pencil, my numbers were eight digits long; I was multiplying scores of millions, but no matter how slow I went, the frequency of errors increased.    After ten minutes, I had to sharpen the pencil because I couldn’t read my own writing.  After twenty minutes, my fingers hurt.  Soon, I could feel calluses forming.

Since the first eight squares of the chessboard had taken me about fifteen seconds to calculate, I’d unconsciously supposed that doing all eight rows might take me eight times as long.    But the absurdity of such a notion was becoming quickly apparent.  Looking up at a clock after half an hour, still not quite half way across the chessboard, my inclination, even then, was to think that the second half of the chessboard would take about as long as the first.  If so, I’d be done in another half an hour.  So I determined to finish.  But a couple of hours past my normal bedtime, I assured my mother I’d be finished soon – notwithstanding finger pain that had been crying for me to stop.  By the time I finished –about two a.m., the calculations having taken me over five hours to complete despite the fact that I’d long since given up trying to correct errors – my fingers were so painfully cramped it seemed they’d never recover.

In this way, I started to “feel,” to “experience,” the hugeness of the number 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.

By reading this account, some may feel they have a deeper sense of the enormity of 2 to the sixty-fourth power.    But I’m willing to bet that if you’ve never done it before, but now actually try to CALCULATE it, yourself, you’ll appreciate the hugeness in ways that symbols on a page – the stuff our brains use – can never convey.

As I look at the digits on the page, my brain is trying to spare me that visit to the land of reality.  It strives to shield me from calloused fingers and mental exhaustion with its easy comparisons, its suggestions to count digits, even its way of hearing words and using them to imagine a story  about going to the moon and back seven times.  In the same way, perspective had tricked me into thinking I understood the length of a fence as if to spare me a sore back, sore feet, sunburn and thirst for two months.  But the experience of painting the fence had taught me more about its length than framing it with my thumbs or even counting the posts between the rails   I don’t know how long it would have taken to finish painting that fence.  I could do the calculations, but only finishing the job would have really made me “comprehend” the time involved, and who knows –I might have died of heat exhaustion before I ever finished.

I should know that the farther away something is, the bigger it must be, if I can see it.  But through the deceit called perspective, my brain tells me precisely the opposite:  the farther away something is, the smaller it appears.  Stars more massive than the sun are reduced to mere pin pricks in the sky. When I remove a contact lens, my thumb  look like the biggest thing in the world.  What better evidence can there be that our brains are built to deceive us?

My brain (wisely) keeps me focused on things I need, like apples, and on things than can kill me, like woolly mammoths, men with rifles, fast moving cars, or thumbs in my eye.  But to do this, my brain necessarily distorts the things that are far away, and the things that are many, and the things that are very much larger than me, because they are things I can do nothing about.  In fact, I suspect that If my brain were asked to identify the biggest, most important thing in the world, it would say it was me.

And that might just be the biggest delusion of all.

–Joe

Digesting Reality

After I gave a short talk on We May Be Wrong, one man who heard me suggested I might want to read “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott.  Along with Scott’s more recent book, “Against the Grain,” it has had a profound effect on my thinking.

Scott is a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale.  His subtitle, “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” gives a clue to his thinking.

Seeing Like a State begins with a description of forestry practices in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony.  The forest, Scott reminds us, was a complicated, diverse ecosystem, consisting not just of varieties of trees, but of bushes and smaller plants, of foliage that was useful for fodder and thatch, of twigs and branches from which bedding was made, of bark and roots for the making of medicines, of sap for making resins, of fruits and nuts available for consumption, of grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, and vines – not to mention being a habitat for fauna from insects and frogs to birds and foxes and deer, and a place human beings used for hunting, gathering, trapping, magic, worship, refuge, poetry and (he didn’t mention it, but I will –) love.

But the German state was focused on a single aspect of the forest – the commercial value of its timber.  In a series of steps recounted by Scott, the German state essentially redesigned its forests in order to maximize timber production and increase the wealth of the German state.  The consequences ultimately proved disastrous – for the state, its citizens, and the forest itself.

From this and a variety of other examples, Scott generalizes:  “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” State action has frequently failed, says Scott, not because the particular state is politically leftist or rightist, wise or inept, forward or backward-thinking, but because its focus is the sort of abstract overview a state must adopt in order to manage a complex system based on whatever fundamental principles it chiefly values.  The connection to WeMayBeWrong  is suggested most strongly when Scott writes, “If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of the forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect.  Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis (my emphasis).

If Scott’s next book is called “Thinking Like a Human Being,” I suspect I’ll like it, too.  For isn’t some level of abstraction necessary, not just for all forms of state action, and all forms of analysis, but  for all forms of communication?  For all forms of thought?  Isn’t it true that to make sense of things, we have to select certain attributes to focus on, to the exclusion of others?  Aren’t we compelled to categorize?  To deal in types rather than specifics?  To oversimplify?  Surely we can’t possibly think in terms of every dachshund on every street in every town in every country of the world, not to mention all the individual dogs of every other breed – especially if we’re going to start comparing them to cats and birds and lizards and apes.  We can only get our mind around such large numbers of unique animals by lumping all those breeds and individuals together, ignoring all their differences,  and speaking of “dogs.”  How could it be otherwise?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.”  Or, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention – difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.”

We aggregate.  We categorize.  We stereotype.  We oversimplify.  As I see it, group unique things together based on certain similarities – despite other differences – is fundamental to the very way we think.

The lead story on the front page of last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was about a twenty-six year old man named Ted.  According to the article, Ted had gotten into hard drugs including opiates, cocaine, and heroin.  He’d been fired from his job and had stolen from his girlfriend.  He’d spent time in jail periodically for assault, grand larceny, and violating probation.  A few days after release from jail, he entered a “sober house” for addicts seeking to beat their addictions.  He signed a contract with the facility that laid out the rules, including curfews, twelve-step meetings, and a specific provision that use of drugs was grounds for immediate expulsion from the house.

As one official was quoted as saying, “These sober homes are not locked down jail cells.  The kids come and go.”  When Ted showed up at his sober house a week later acting suspiciously, a required drug test was positive for cocaine and morphine.  When asked to submit to a drug search, Ted refused.  In accordance with the contract he’d signed, he was told he had to leave the house.  Together with another resident, he did.  That was late on a Friday night.

On Saturday, Ted and the other man did some work for a landscaper.  Saturday night, Ted was exchanging text messages with a girlfriend in Florida and with the landscaper, who was asking about Ted’s plans for Sunday.  But on Sunday, Ted’s body was found on the side of a country road not far from where we live.  He had died of an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, presumably consumed later that Saturday night.

Alright – it’s a tragic story, but what does it have to do with Seeing Like a State?  Or with WeMayBeWrong?

Ted’s picture was printed, rather large, on the front page of the paper, along with a headline that read, “The System that Was Trying to Help Him Crumbled.”  The article’s subtitle was “Death in Chesterfield Highlights Gaps in Care for Addicts Living in Sober Homes.”  According to the article, Ted’s grieving mother was “strongly critical” of the sober house’s conduct in telling him he had to leave, rather than releasing him to someone who could give him “proper care.”  What that might have entailed and how it might have worked is far from clear to me.  Apparently, calling a probation officer late on a Friday night is problematic.  Even had he been reached, would Ted’s probation officer have been able to locate Ted, or do anything that would have led to saving Ted from his final overdose?

But what I find interesting is the acclaim of “experts” calling for a standardized fix to the system. Interviewed for the article, the head of an unrelated recovery program said “operators of recovery homes need to have policies for making sure residents get the care they need when they test positive for drugs.”  The grieving mother posted a letter on another website to the effect that recovery facilities “MUST have a protocol, a plan of action” in such cases.  When interviewed for the article, the President of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences said that all fifty states should have laws requiring all sober houses to be certified – by them (state affiliates of the N.A.R.R), or by organizations like them.  Such certifications, he said, would be based on “clear policies,” “trained staff” and “approved standards.”   The grieving mother’s complaints that the “system” had “crumbled” became the headline the Times-Dispatch gave to its coverage.  That newspaper’s attention had caused the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (V.A.R.R.) to schedule a vote, this coming month, “to create a uniform policy for what operators of sober homes should do when someone relapses.”

No less so than central governments, private organizations like the N.A.R.R. and V.A.R.R. meet, and analyze, and sometimes vote (depending on how democratic they are) to determine the best method of dealing with categories of problems.  Once these entities identify “best methods,” they seek to encourage or require others to adhere to them.  Hence the call for uniform policies, approved standards and “certifications” by these organizations.  But in Ted’s case, amidst all the calls for uniformity, written policies, standards and certifications, I fail to see the connection between such proposals and the conduct of this particular house, and this particular drug addict.  And I wonder whether all the sober houses of the world should be treating all the drug addicts of the world in a “uniform” manner when they relapse, as if all members of the category ought to be treated the same.

Understandably, the grief-stricken mother believes that releasing her son to “proper care” would have made a difference.  Understandably, she believes that the “system crumbled.”  It’s harder for me to understand why a newspaper headlines its story about Ted with that same diagnosis – that  the lack of – or deficiency in – a “system”  was the cause of the tragic event two days later.  And I wonder why organizations like the Virginia and National A.R.R.’s see written policies, uniform standards and certificates of compliance as the answer to problems like Ted’s – until I remember that those same organizations would be the ones setting the standards and issuing the certificates – in other words, “thinking like states.”

But I don’t think it’s just states.   Gilbert, again: “[M]uch of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of [our] penchant for control.  Before our butts hit the very first diaper, we already have a throbbing desire to suck, sleep, poop and make things happen… Toddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their forehead.  Why?… The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control…”

The questions raised by Ted’s tragic death and by Professor Scott’s books include whether uniform standards and systems imposed by any central authorities, public entities or large private corporations or associations,  are capable of fully addressing the complexities and fluidity of the world.   Large organizations, says Scott, can only operate based on uniform standards applied to categories shaped along lines that are capable of centralized, standardized administration.  By their nature, standards are uniform across whol categories. They are also meant to be relatively permanent in the face of constant change – permanent in the sense of controlling things until some newer, wiser “standard” is discovered and deemed worthy of taking its place.   But if the lack of uniform standards is the answer to Ted’s problems and the rest of the world’s problems, what do we make of the German approach to forestry?  Of the widespread use of DDT?  Of the failure of the Soviet Union?  Of the unbridled use of petrochemicals by private industry?  Of the increasing tendency for “superior” (but genetically uniform) corn to be planted all across America?

These days, science has become acutely aware of the dangers of monoculture when it comes to crops, wildflowers, bees, viruses, and all species of living things.  It was standardization that killed the forests of Saxony.  Diversity in the gene pool of flora and fauna is recognized as the best long term protection against an ever larger list of catastrophes – both the few that we’re aware of and the many we’re not.   The Supreme Court has before it a case in which Harvard University stresses the importance of diversity in its admissions practices, and most of the universities in the country support Harvard as to that importance.  . More and more, I hear scientists and psychologists speak of the impossibility of predicting the future, so that any scheme designed to protect us from the most visible threats may well subject us to others not yet perceived.  Yet in the face of growing concerns about monoculture and the importance of diversity, cries for standardization and uniform solutions continue from people convinced they know what’s best for us all.

According to Scott, the tendency of authorities who’ve decided they “know what’s best” to impose those ideas uniformly, in a “one-size fits all” manner, is a serious problem, and whether those authorities are private or public, totalitarian or democratic, they do so only after over-simplifying the world.   They design their systems like monocultures, giving precedence to a few priorities in an extremely complex and inter-dependent world that is, in the end, a forest (of one sort of another).   “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” “Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis.”

Or, to borrow a thought from Jean Paul Sartre, quoted by Scott: “Ideas cannot digest reality.”

Perhaps, yet another reason that we may be wrong.

– Joe