The J Curve

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Spooks and Goblins

As it’s Halloween here, I got to thinking about strange beliefs and their origins. Do you think that the generation of myths and folkloric false beliefs has declined over time?

In addition to the popularization of the scientific method, I wonder if photography lessened the promulgation of tall tales. Before photography, if someone told you a story about ghosts in the haunted house or the beast on the hill, you could chose to believe them or check for yourself. There was no way to say, “show me a picture of that Yeti or Loch Ness Monster, and then I’ll believe you.”

And, if so, will we regress as we have developed the ability to modify and fabricate photos and video?

For our class on genetic free speech, Lessig used a pre-print of Posner’s new book, Catastophe: Risk and Response. Posner relates the following statistics on American adults:
• 39% believe astrology is scientific (astrology, not astronomy).
• 33% believe in ghosts and communication with the dead.

Ponder that for a moment. One out of every three U.S. adults believes in ghosts. Who knows what their kids think.

People’s willingness to believe untruths relates to the ability of the average person to reason critically about reality. Here are some less amusing statistics on American adults:
• 46% deny that human beings evolved from earlier animal species.
• 49% don’t know that it takes a year for the earth to revolve around the sun.
• 67% don't know what a molecule is.
• 80% can't understand the NY Times Tuesday science section.

Posner concludes: “It is possible that science is valued by most Americans as another form of magic.” This is a wonderful substrate for false memes and a new generation of bogeymen.

Gotta go… It’s time to trick-or-treat… =)


  • Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)What Clarke didn't made clear, is that "sufficiently" parameter :-)

    The statistics you mention are terrifying. Some of them reveal the poor quality of the educational system but anti-evolutionists are a quite different problem. They have the fundamental belief that God created us as we are. A very old one, which evolved in parallel with human communities and shaped them. And evolutionists may be yet a minority if you compile world wide data.

    By Blogger Antoine Vekris, at 3:39 AM  

  • The Figures only tell me, what the rest of the world already knew. That the US has a large number of extremly stupid people living in it. For a country which prides itself on being "rich"; it certainly seems poor when you present figures such as these. I am certain in fact that the figures would show a much stronger basis in reason, if the same poll was taken, in lets say, Iran or North Korea. And yet the US sees those countires as "backward". My County is equally as bad, since our population seems obsessed more with the US election, than the European Constitution; so its not just the US that is filled with large numbers of very stupid people.

    More to the point, when will the US field a decent Cricket team :)

    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:53 AM  

  • Ooooh, you blogged this! I can´t help posting, excuséz-moi...

    But first I´d like to show my agreement on these gentlement comments and yours about the poor US people´s culture in all meanings. Unfortunately, this is the result of this conception US have of being the "bellybutton of the world", so they don´t "need" to know nothing about but their own culture. A culture which ends up eating itself (since there is no imput from the outside) and being reduced to... well... to what you know.

    For exmaple, why do I know English? Because "I needed to". Since americans didn´t need (at least until this past years) to speak spanish or french... Why would they learn it?

    Now that I made this point clear abuot education and culture, it follows the core of my comment.

    I think, Steve, that your halloween post shows up one of my truest convictions about the world and ourselves, that I try to make others understand...

    In the short or long run, our "knowledge", what we think, the foundations of our conceptions about everything, what we take as True... it is all a matter of faith. And choice.

    We decide (conciously or not) to believe that something we are being told about or shown it is true.

    Since our Knowledge come most from learning by refered -indirect- sources (books, stories, tapes, pictures...) and not from immediate experience of our senses (which could not be completely trust as well), it is a priori an act of faith to assume they are true.

    This I say uncomforts the believing vs knowing dualists, coz it tears down the opposition... if they could only see how good it makes to concieve them as aspects or moments of the same data processing.

    whatcha think? or believe?... I believe/know you don´t agree with me on this. Adieu... 0-)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 6:24 AM  

  • in order to know something, you have first to obtain hard (i.e. provable) facts about it, or about something else that it can be logically derived from. and as someone already pointed out before, you cannot even trust your own senses -- so how do you prove that "this apple is red"? furthermore, you have to learn the rules of logic in order to be able to apply them to your perception and differentiate facts from apparences. thirdly, you must have enough time and brainpower to perform such analysis. and finally, you must be able to accept "uncomfortable" results -- those which are "morally wrong", "politically incorrect" or otherwise in contradiction to common -- and possibly your own -- beliefs. these requirements effectively prevent most of the mankind from really knowing anything important.

    believing is a lot "cheaper" -- or if you prefer a more "positive" term -- less costly. you can believe anything you want to believe. and if you believe something, you don't have to prove it; you can even go as far as saying it is so because it is so. you can burn "witches" because they dare to question the existence of your god, or the necessity of donating a tenth of their crops to your church. you can fire rockets into the cities and houses and buses and cars full of "terrorists" because they don't think they need your democracy and dollars and christian morality.

    By Blogger wolli, at 11:53 AM  

  • Hi Steve,

    This post makes me think !!!!!

    Posner concludes: “It is possible that science is valued by most Americans as another form of magic.” This is a wonderful substrate for false memes and a new generation of bogeymen.

    The post tells me also a lot about those that believe in science (i.e. myself). If so many can not "understand" science, or "believe" science, why is it that scientists do. Humans have been able to achieve a lot of things through science, but this achievement has produced objects to ease life but also to be descuctive to life.

    Even people that do not "believe" scientific "facts", are users or buyers of technology. It turns out, again and again that the achievements do not really contribute to the phychological well being of humans. They think it does though, specially us scientists. We feel at ease to know that the earth revolves around the sun in 1 year, but with or without that knowledge I can enjoy the different beauties of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall just as intens.

    Even the scientist, if he/she listens truely to the facts, can not deny that there is something more than what we percieve as true knowledge.

    The shocking result from such polls for me is that most people seem to be so occupied with their own phychological state and striving for their own well being, that they can not see the beauty of others.

    In one of the comments a method is given on how to "objectively" look at facts. But even this is a method created by men. Which is something you can believe in but it also creates dualism between those who do, and those who don't.

    At Halloween, the Kelts celebrated the end of the harvest season and chased away the evil spirits. Halloween today looks like we worship the evil spirits. Without being gratefull what the land brings us (or science for that matter). Without knowing how everything works, people should enjoy . . . ..

    By Blogger Joost, at 11:24 PM  

  • Gisela and Joost: very interesting, and Matrixesque, observations. It reminds me of some of the newest theories in neuroscience, a slight digression…

    I am in the middle of Jeff Hawkins’ new book On Intelligence, which presents a memory-prediction framework for intelligence in the neocortex. He notes that the brain is the only part of the body that has no senses itself. Everything we know and remember comes from the spatial and temporal stream of patterns from input axons to the brain. All of the senses, vision, touch, hearing, etc. are converted into similarly structured streams of pulses before they get to the neocortex.

    So all of the inputs to the cortex are fundamentally similar, and all regions of the cortex perform fundamentally similar, but hierarchically structured functions. This is why people can be trained to see with a camera wired to electrodes on their tongue, and ferrets can develop just fine with their auditory and visual centers of the brain surgically swapped (so the vision center processes sound and vice versa). “In fact, your brain can’t directly know where your body ends and the world begins.”

    And there is massive internal feedback to the sense-making process. “Your brain constantly makes predictions about the very fabric of the world we live in, and it does so in a parallel fashion… What we perceive – that is, how the world appears to us – does not come solely from our senses. What we perceive is a combination of what we sense and our brain’s memory-derived predictions.” When the pattern stream is consistent with our memory-prediction engines, we don’t even notice it.

    So all representations of reality, memory, and “self” are interwoven and internal abstractions, derived from a stream of patterns. I would imagine that some people incorporate more external feedback, and adjust internal representations more frequently, than others. Children do this naturally….

    So, back to the topic: spooks and goblins. =)
    Bill of Orkut pointed me to this wonderful update:

    “The one-metre- (3ft) tall species - dubbed "the Hobbit" - lived on Flores Island until at least 12,000 years ago… Even more intriguing is the fact that Flores' inhabitants have incredibly detailed legends about the existence of little people on the island they call Ebu Gogo… The fact that little people feature in the legends of modern Flores islanders suggests we might have to take tales of Leprechauns and Yeti more seriously.”

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 10:02 AM  

  • Hey, I like Joost intervention!!! But this is not like Orkut network, I can´t "add him as a friend"... =( I would really like to invite him to our Eclectic´s weblog. If you read this, Joost, you are welcome.

    Steve, I remembered something I wrote some time ago which I would like to contribute with here. Your reading seems very interesting and enlightening to me because it gives "concrete" (from neuroscience) observations on the things I intuitively think about with my primitive resources on that field and my observation of my own sensing experiences as a human being. Let me share:

    We believe, therefore we exist.

    I am trying to find a common element that should (like the atom or the quark in physics) help in putting all the subjects of my thinking in one same level. I was trying to find a thing which everything we experience, feel, think, perceive, learn and imagine would be made of.

    My cause intends to find a path to communion -not to make a reduction in order to build a rigid model-, a way to enlarge our vision by gathering together diverse views (hard /soft sciences, spirituality, emotions, experience...). And to do this I thought that they should have to have something in common: their code, their substance, their expression, their matter, ...anything. Likewise we here, in this community (Orkut as a whole) we are sharing at least one thing: a common language.

    Finally, the words "belief" and "faith" came rioting and shouting into my conciousness.

    In the beginning there is faith,
    And so in the end.
    Perception is based on our belief about the world we live in.
    Religion is based on faith.
    Thought is an upgraded faith
    Science is upgraded religion.
    Love, hate, passion, values...
    Languages, codes and feelings...
    Et ceteras.

    All attached to the very first act of believing... Faith is the undefined tissue of our conciousness waiting to be given a name, an object, a practice and a subject.

    ...I believe.

    "It is a myth, not a mandate, a fable not a logic, and symbol rather than a reason by which men are moved." -Irwin Edman

    Thank you, Steve, as always, for this space for expression. =)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 2:14 PM  

  • Mythmaking is all around us and is not just limited to Ghosts and Goblins.

    I develop and maintain very large information systems and interact with the users and owners of these systems as well as the developers every day.

    I am struck by how often senior leadership does not understand what it is their firms do and how their physical systems ( and embedded, mirrored information systems ) work. How much money they make is directly tied to how well and smoothly these parallel systems run. Yet they dont understand neither system, and hence, dont understand their business. Time after time after time I see large gaping holes in how they do things through which they are bleeding cash or losing opportunities. They either dont have a mental model or their mental model thinks of this stuff as magic.

    With few exceptions, every major manufacturer I have worked with has serious, serious problems with their systems. ( The good news is they have lots of opportunities. )

    Futhermore, developers and systems architects commonly build new systems to add functionality, rather than add to the existing system OR, better, remove or coalesce systems to make things more efficient. They more often choose a more complex, less clear way of doing something in favor of 'clever' approaches which are akin to rhetorical flourishes.

    IT departments still adhere to a large staff and waterfall models, and lots of systems, rather than a small team of surgeons and fast small iterations and a handful of systems.

    I dont think this is laziness, rather its how people think about the world and what their horizon is for results, and whether they build and test models about things, whether they look for structure.

    I do think that modern education does not teach people to learn - to gather facts, to arrange the information, and to draw inferences, test alternatives, then apply that knowledge, and then to cross-check across these inferences. The final step is to ask is this good or bad, can it be better?

    This inability to think and act clearly is a huge drag on productivity and a big hindrance to progress.

    By Blogger PureData, at 11:14 AM  

  • Relevant to this thread and policy making implications: if you have not heard of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO), you may find this informational site to be quite interesting....

    I got a picture of DHMO pretending to be sushi....

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 12:37 PM  

  • Great points, Steve. The frightening thing is it seems to me that we're moving away from science rather than towards it, in the US at least. The fact that in 1999, the Kansas Board of Education voted to remove all references to evolution from the public school system's standard curriculum (although they were later overruled), highlights the problem. One could also argue that without the USSR's launch of Sputnik in 1957, the US might never have accepted the need for a stronger science curriculum in the first place.

    Just recently, a Pennsylvania school district tried a new tactic to avoid teaching evolution.

    With regard to video and photo fabrication, for anyone who hasn't seen the videorealistic facial animation technology being developed at MIT, it's quite amazing what can be done today. While the technology isn't perfect (yet), test subjects were fooled about half the time when shown computer generated videos of people saying things they never said.

    By Blogger Rusty Lee, at 12:53 AM  

  • Joost:

    Since the sixties relatively well educated people have recognized that science is a social mechanism. Kuhn with his concept of "paradigms" which don't change until the old generation dies off, Popper with critical communities. These social mechanisms have tools like peer review and logics such as one false case disqualifies a claim that give them much more reliability than traditional social mechanisms.

    By Blogger hela lee, at 9:50 PM  

  • "I love Jesus. It's his fan club that makes me nervous." -from a bumper sticker.


    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 1:05 PM  

  • Are you sure ghosts don't exist?
    Ghosts are souls, which are actually just humans without their bodies. Is science all the truth there is? If so, it wouldn't continue to evolve as old theories are proven wrong.
    But then, everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Thanks for the interesting post!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:36 AM  

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