Thursday, June 25, 2009

Book Review: Intuition: Its Powers and Perils

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils
by David G. Myers

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intuition: Its Powers and Perils is an extremely accessible read. Much like Malcolm Gladwell did with the book Blink, psychology professor David G. Myers presents a fascinating, introductory exploration of the human mind and its non-conscious, unreflective ability to pass instantaneous judgment (and, often, misjudgment) on the world. As the title of his work suggests, Myers showcases both the amazing feats and the seemingly inescapable drawbacks of human intuition, devoting the first half of his book to a general survey of telling psychological research that reveals, among other things, how our intuitive abilities influence our social interactions, how they enable us to answer questions correctly even when we think we’re just guessing, and how they fool us into thinking we’re much more virtuous and intelligent than average. The latter half of Myers’ book then turns to “practical intuition,” examining how intuition plays a role in everything from sports performance to stock investments to playing the lottery.

Those familiar with Gladwell’s popular title will find more of the same here, though arguably much more. While several of the experiments cited by Gladwell also appear in this work, Myers covers a much wider range of material, all to the benefit of the seriously interested reader. In fact, when compared to Intuition: Its Powers and Perils, Gladwell’s Blink is a mere CliffsNotes survey of intuition. Myers work is far superior, packing maximum substance into a book that remains wholly approachable and, admittedly, entertaining to read. Even when Myers threatens to become preachy, as he does in a chapter on gambling, his whimsical sense of humor adds a spark of personality to what otherwise may have been a drab regurgitation of statistical information. (And, in fairness to Myers, though he makes it clear that gambling is highly irrational—you’re often much more likely to die on your way to buy a lottery ticket than to actually win—he nevertheless offers advice on how to choose lottery numbers that are less likely to be chosen by others, thereby maximizing your potential winnings should those numbers happen to turn up.) Finally, Myers fosters a sense of interactivity between himself and his readers by continually testing the latter’s intuitions. Even though we know we’re being set up to fail, it’s fascinating to see just how readily we gravitate toward the wrong answers.

Bottom line: readers will walk away from Intuition: Its Powers and Perils feeling both humbled and enlightened—which is precisely what Myers would expect and want.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How I've Been Spending My Summer Vacation

This is my last week before “real” school starts again. I’ve been doing some independent study type of classes, which means I’ve been reading a long list or articles and texts that I had approved by a couple of different professors with whom I periodically check in and report my progress, ask questions, etc. But as of Monday, I’ll be TA-ing for an introductory-level applied ethics course five days a week and taking a class on normative epistemology for six hours a week. It’s going to feel like a normal semester, but compressed. Granted, I’m not taking as many classes as I would in a normal semester, but the fact that both my TA responsibilities and my student responsibilities will be going at double the normal speed (so as to be completed in seven weeks), I think I’m in for a rude awakening. Even though I’ve remained a fairly diligent student this summer with the independent studying, it’s been wonderful not going to campus every day, especially lately, as the heat index is normally pushing past 100 degrees. In a word: poo.

Looking on the bright side, it feels like it’s been an incredibly long time since I was in school. Though it’s only been about eight weeks (which is lovely, I admit), it feels like it’s been twice that long. It probably helps that we went to Utah in the middle of it all. And I’ve been having fun. I haven’t worked as hard as I could have—and perhaps should have—but I think that’s a good thing. I’ve enjoyed more time with my family than I’m used to, and we’ve been exploring Tallahassee a bit more. The car is often cooler than the apartment, even with central air, and riding in it is conducive of naps for the young ones, so afternoon drives have become somewhat standard around here. (And it helps that Circle K is offering a summertime deal on soda fountain refills – just $.49!) We’ve also splurged quite a bit lately when it comes to eating out, and we’ve found a few places that we’re quite fond of. It’s been fun to find some places that are unique to Tallahassee, or at least weren’t available in other cities in which we’ve lived. So, with somewhat open summer days and not much to do to escape the heat, we’ve found ourselves doing a bit more, taking more ownership of Tallahassee, etc. It’s been very nice. Come Monday, of course, my world will once again revolve around school and being on campus, which is going to feel like a narrow and limited world in comparison. How sad.

I guess when you start a paragraph with “looking on the bright side” and end it with “how sad,” you’re probably being too whiny. So I’ll shut up for now. But there’s an update, for anyone out there wondering.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lost … But Not Quite in Love

Thanks to our Netflix subscription, Melanie and I have finally jumped on the Lost bandwagon, watching the first two seasons of the hit ABC television series over the last couple of months. For those who don’t know, the basic plot of Lost is this: in flight from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles, California, Oceanic flight 815 strays two hours off course before breaking apart in midair and plunging into the water below. Approximately 50 survivors find themselves stranded on an island that appears, rather eerily, not to be quite as deserted as it initially appears. As I recall, when the first season originally aired, many viewers were immediately gripped by the show. I somehow missed the boat (or plane) and never watched it. Upon watching it on DVD, however, I am slowly coming around to appreciate its plausibly addictive nature … emphasis on both slowly and plausibly. I’m definitely not addicted. In fact, having just finished up season two, I am not particularly eager to see what happens in season three. I’m curious, and I fully expect to enjoy it when I do watch it, but I’m not against taking a break from it. Which says something.

My thoughts on the show so far are these: while season one fostered a sense of mystery about the show, season two has proven much more action-based. Normally, I would take that to bode well for season one, but I personally didn’t feel genuinely gripped by the show until the first few episodes of season two. Season one just wasn’t mysterious enough for me, I guess. It made me curious, but I was never on the edge of my seat at the end of an episode. That being said, season two really takes a nosedive at about the middle of the season. Rather than consistently developing the story, several episodes seem to do nothing more than help fill the quota for episodes produced that year. (When an episode focuses primarily on one character having a day of low self-esteem, that is just lame; I am hardly exaggerating.) Perhaps as a result of this, certain key characters in the show temporarily seem unlike themselves, without any plausible explanation being given or even implied. This is also to the detriment of the show’s appeal. Still, by the very end of season two, things are picking up again, even if the season finale is not as compelling as you would hope it to be. I’ve heard from an avid fan of the show that season two is considered a low point in the series, so I’ll happily stick with it and see where it goes. But I remain a bit iffy and far from totally sold on it.

Some further thoughts: it is admittedly ridiculous how these characters carry on. From the get-go, none of them really seem all that bothered about being stuck on an island. Fairly quickly, they act almost as if nothing has happened, which is absurd. The background action is particularly laughable at times, as it seems there is always a person or two just strolling along the beach, as if on vacation. I guess you want something going on in the background to add to the show’s depth and realism, but one can’t help but wonder what all these people are always doing and where in the world they’re always going. The characters also maintain an unbelievably high standard of hygiene, given their circumstances. They are constantly wearing different clothes, their hair is never too crazy, and the women always have their makeup on. The show makes room for this via the surplus of luggage that is left strewn about the beach in the first episode, but would these people really go to such lengths to remain attractive? I’m skeptical.

Complaints aside, I am enjoying the show. Fortunately, basically every episode weaves a story taking place on the island “today” with something from the past, providing us glimpses into the lives of these characters before they boarded the fated flight and thereby giving us a peek at their psychological seams. If you thought the show was all island, all the time, you are as mistaken as I once was. If that was a turn-off for you, don’t let it stop you from checking out the DVDs. The character development provided by way of flashback adds substantial richness and texture to the show’s otherwise sensational narrative. And, if you’re a philosopher like me, you’ll get a kick out of the show’s unabashed nod to philosophy, with characters named after prominent figures in the history of philosophy (e.g. John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau—though any other allusions to these philosophers is far from obvious, at least to me. Then again, political philosophy, which was a common interest among these philosophers, is not my strong suit. There is probably more going on than meets the eye—which would be true to the show’s spirit).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Warped Thinking

Discovery News reports that warp drives facilitating space travel at faster than the speed of light look to be a theoretical possibility, though they may bring about catastrophic results—sucking the high-speed spacecrafts that use them, and anything relatively close to those crafts (such as the planet Earth), into a newly formed black hole.

Apparently, a glimmer of hope remains in string theory, which, if true, might allow for warp-speed travel that does not require the formation of a “bubble of dark energy” that ultimately threatens to pop. According to Discovery News, “in a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 3, a possibility with string theory instead of the semi classical physics used by [those who have identified the threat of black hole formation], a stable warp drive is viable.” They go on to note that “the real question is not whether a warp drive, which [some experts] estimate is hundreds of years away, will be stable or not. It's about the fundamentals of the universe; do we live in a universe where 1 plus 1 equals 2 or 3? Until scientists can answer that question, there will be significant limitations on scientific models of the universe.”

While I find the notion of warp-speed travel intriguing, my real reason for bringing up this article is to point out the sloppy philosophy that so often permeates science (or at least scientific reporting). Quite simply, it is not the case that 1 plus 1 equals 3, nor can it be. Whatever these scientists have in mind, it is something other than what they suggest here. They are speaking loosely at best, which unfortunately happens quite often in scientific investigations. I see this all the time when reading about free will – scientists claiming to have shown free will is an illusion because people can be fooled into thinking they did things voluntarily when they did not, etc. The truth is, philosophy permeates everything, so if you’re sloppy with your philosophy, your science suffers. I don’t know what it is about string theory that suggests “1 plus 1 equals 3,” but I assure you it is not at odds with what we mean when we say “1 plus 1 equals 2.” So, for any competent user of the English language, there isn’t a question about whether 1 plus 1 equals 2 or whether it equals 3. It’s the former. If string theory is correct, that won’t change. Whatever they mean in this article, it isn’t quite what they’re saying, which means they are either intentionally sensationalizing the article or just stupid. Neither option appeals to me.

Sorry. Little things like that get annoying. That’s my two cents, anyway. Or is it three?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Suck! My Toe!

That, my friends, is a photo of the big toe on my right foot. Notice (how could you not?) that the skin is, for the lack of a better word, fraying—literally peeling away like an onion (I hate onions!) for presumably no reason. Notice that the dangling pieces of skin in the upper, middle region of my toe are substantially thick, at least as far as dangling pieces of skin are wont to go. This causes quite a problem whenever I pull a blanket over my legs (every night!) or walk around on carpet in my bare feet (every morning!) and these dangling pieces of skin unfailingly snag on the respective fabric. It sucks! It hurts! It bleeds! I have to trim these dangling pieces of skin with a nail clipper in order to avoid such minor catastrophes!

Fortunately, this fraying is not consistent. It seems like it’s only every two or three weeks that I might go through a few days of extra dry (I guess that’s the problem?) toe skin. I think all of this has something to do with the fact that I now limp, and so I am not standing on my feet in quite the same way I used to. My feet are still adjusting. Consider: it is only the big toe, it is only on my right foot, and what’s more, it is predominantly on the left-most side of said toe. This suggests that the dangling skin is somehow the result of my compensating for the diminished strength of my left leg by leaning my right foot just slightly inward, toward my left foot. Admittedly, it looks at times like my right foot’s big toe is developing calluses, although it never quite makes it. Perhaps that is part of the problem—calluses begin and are then rejected, and the toughened skin is slowly and painfully sloughed away.


Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Book Reviews: Blink and Out of Our Heads

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Blink is a quick, easy, and fun read about how people unconsciously and near-instantaneously analyze things, in some cases with surprising accuracy and detail. The myriad real-life examples explored in the book are fascinating, and readers are bound to find themselves eager to share these interesting stories with those who have not had the privilege of reading the book for themselves. Still, the book is little more than a collection of these stories, and those looking for a meatier treatise will walk away disappointed. This would not speak ill of Blink itself if not for Malcolm Gladwell's introductory chapter, wherein the author implies that such meat is forthcoming. For example, Gladwell states that one primary objective of his writing Blink is to convince readers that "snap judgments and first impressions can be educated and controlled." Reading this, one expects something more on the idea of honing our instantaneous judgments than Gladwell actually provides, which is a single chapter that, more than anything else, tells a story about how musical orchestras have largely eliminated sexual bias from the audition process by making auditions anonymous.

While I only give Blink three stars, I heartily recommend it. It seems an ideal read for an airplane ride, the morning train commute, and the like.

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness
by Alva Noë

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alva Noë’s thesis is simple: consciousness is an active procedure, something we do rather than something that happens to or within us. Noë argues that consciousness is a kind of skill, not something we passively experience and must then interpret. It is therefore incorrect to suppose that the mysteries of consciousness can be answered by appealing solely to the physical brain, and any science that proceeds on the assumption that the brain is the be-all and end-all of consciousness is egregiously misguided. The mind is more than the brain, and consciousness consists of an active relationship between one’s body and mind and the world. The brain is merely an ingredient of consciousness.

Out of Our Heads is a philosophy book written for a general (i.e. non-philosophizing) audience. This has its merits, of course. The book is fairly approachable, though those who find scientific discussion of any extent either arduous or boring are better served elsewhere. The non-rigorous treatment also has its shortcomings—some conclusions just seem too hastily reached. Philosophically inclined readers are bound to ask a lot of, “OK, but…”-type questions on behalf of Noë’s opponents, but this is to demand more of the author than he has set out to give. A more philosophically robust treatment of these issues is purportedly given in Noë’s previous work, Action in Perception (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit I have not read).

My main criticism of the book is that the first fifty pages or so feel repetitious. Noë spends a good deal of time on his one-note soapbox (consciousness is not something that happens in us, you understand?) before treading more interesting terrain. Fortunately, the latter half of the book examines a great deal of fascinating scientific research, replete with tales of “rewired” ferrets who experience vision with their “auditory brains,” cameras that translate visual information into vibrations and enable blind people to successfully hit oncoming Ping-Pong balls, and visually unimpaired people who fail to notice when a woman in a gorilla suit beats her chest right before their eyes. Noë deftly uses these data in support of his own admonition that scientific investigations of consciousness need to be re-examined and, in many cases, restructured completely.

For the most part, Noë’s project is successful. His approach to the issues at hand is imbued with a healthy respect for common sense, which is both appealing and refreshing. Admittedly, I remain leery of thinking that Noë has shown consciousness of a most primitive sort to be irreducible to neuronal activity in the brain; at best, he has demonstrated that consciousness may require external stimulation, which seems a much more modest (and, I would think, much less controversial) claim. Even still, Noë has certainly contributed to an important and engrossing discussion, and much of what he argues seems applicable to consciousness more broadly construed—that is, as the faculty which comprehends and engages with the world, which seems to be Noë’s primary focus of concern. In the end, then, those who have never questioned the notion that the brain is all there is to consciousness will benefit from an open-minded reading of Noë’s text, while those who are already wary of such claims will find their suspicions validated and empirically reinforced.