Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Amazing Meeting 7: SGU, Shermer, Savage

This is part four of my summary of TAM7, now up to Saturday, July 10. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and my coverage of the Science-based Medicine conference begins here.

Skeptics Guide to the Universe
Both Friday and Saturday morning began with live recording sessions for the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, for which I didn't bother to take notes, since it was being recorded (it's Skeptics Guide podcast episode #208 and may be found on the website archive or via the iTunes store). The Saturday morning event began with a satirical ghost hunter video by Jay Novella, "The G Hunters" (part one, part two). But the real surprise came during the listener Q&A session, when Sid Rodrigues asked a question "maybe for Rebecca," which turned out to be "Will you marry me?" A seemingly impromptu, but carefully planned wedding followed immediately, though there wasn't enough cake for everyone, nor a champagne toast. All present did receive after-the-fact invitations as a nice memento, and there was a first dance for those who wanted to participate.

Michael Shermer
Michael Shermer prefaced his talk with an overview of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine that bore some resemblance to the introduction of his TED Talk of 2006. His talk, titled "Rise Above--Towards a Type I Civilization," argued that we should work to rise above our tribal instincts, our evolutionary heritage, and the left-right political spectrum. He began by noting that most of our decisions are judgments made on uncertainties (a reference to the classic book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky), made emotionally with intuitive leaps which are then followed by rationalization to provide reasons to justify what we've already decided to do. He observed that when the amygdala is damaged, this leads not only to loss of emotional capacity, but an inability to make decisions. We don't fall into categories of good and evil, but good and evil run through each person, he said, referencing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. An individual's expanding circles of concern are based on genetic relationships and kin selection, he said, and reciprocal altruism operates within kin/kind/community. We're good to members of our in-group, but skeptical and cautious about other groups.

He spoke briefly about the left-right political spectrum, arguing instead for a three-dimensional Nolan chart that is used by libertarians with a misleading questionnaire as a recruiting tool. While I agree with Shermer that the left-right spectrum has serious weaknesses, I don't think the Nolan chart is much of an improvement, especially when the coordinates on the chart are determined by a limited set of questions that are worded in a way that glosses over details. Better, I think, is to recognize that the space of political positions really encompasses far more dimensions. Shermer asked the audience how many considered themselves to be left of center, right, or libertarians, and the answers were about 1-2 people right of center, 15-20% libertarian, and the rest self-described liberal. He put up a couple of slides containing exaggerated stereotypical descriptions of how conservatives view liberals and vice versa, which produced cheers to both. He put up the political map of red and blue states based on the last presidential election results, and pointed out that the map is misleading, because if you look at it on a more granular level the country is really a mass of purple. (Though he didn't mention or address the thesis of Bill Bishop's The Big Sort.) He noted that his speaking out about his libertarianism has raised more ire than his views on religion (theism), and stated that it's fine to disagree, but that political topics should be open to discussion. This was probably the most controversial talk of the conference, and it, along with Shermer's recent interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast, have led to some to argue that skepticism should be apolitical. Shermer said that he's been told that he should be apolitical, "like Carl Sagan," to which Shermer (correctly) responded that Sagan was not apolitical, as he argued for a number of liberal causes, including nuclear disarmament (a cause for which he was twice arrested during protests).

He then turned to some more interesting research, Jonathan Haidt's work on how people make moral judgments. Haidt has hypothesized that we make moral judgments based on five scales, which Shermer compared to "a five-channel moral equalizer":
  1. care: Protection from harm.
  2. fairness: Justice, equality.
  3. loyalty: Family, group, nation.
  4. authority: Respect for law, tradition, and traditional institutions.
  5. purity: Rules about sexual conduct, recognition of sacredness.
Liberals tend to emphasize the first two items, which place a focus on individual rights, while conservatives use those two and the remaining three about equally, and the last three focus on group cohesiveness. These tendencies seem to hold up across cultures.

Shermer apparently argued that all five of these scales are important, saying that "since 9/11, things have changed," and noting that group loyalty is now getting some emphasis from left-atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Shermer argued that religious extremists are dangerous, and are assisted by religious moderates. I think this is actually a badly mistaken inference to draw. Sure, there are extremists who are out to harm the U.S., but terrorism is a strategy of the militarily weak against the strong, and the right way to combat it is not by doing things like launching an invasion and occupying a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 (Iraq), engaging in torture and abuse, and causing religious moderates to join with the extremists, but rather by a divide-and-conquer strategy that isolates the extremists from the moderates and maintains the moral high ground. (Skeptic and physicist Taner Edis, from Turkey, has criticized Sam Harris for his misunderstanding of Islam, as has Chris Hedges who, despite his sometimes annoying attitude, made some good points on the subject in his Point of Inquiry interview.)

To support his point, Shermer showed a clip from the film "A Few Good Men" in which Jack Nicholson defends his position of ordering a "Code Red" to engage in self-enforcement to punish a slacker in the military ranks as an ugly and unpleasant necessity.

Shermer then turned to the Kardashev scale referenced in his title, which classifies civilizations into Type 0 (energy produced from dead plants and animals), Type I (planetary civilizations controlling the energy of an entire planet), Type II (stellar civilizations controlling the energy of an entire sun), and Type III (a civilization controlling all of the energy in an entire galaxy). Shermer gave an ordering from Type 0 to Type II, with tribal communities at 0.3, liberal democracies at 0.8, and then described Type I civilizations as including a global wireless (why wireless?) communication system (the Internet), a global language (English, most likely), a global culture (why not diverse cultures?), and global free trade, which breaks down tribal barriers. He didn't really provide an argument for the details of the how and why, apart from that short defense of global free trade and a little more he said later, pointing to the work of Fredric Bastiat (Bastiat's axiom: where goods cross frontiers, armies will not), which he augmented with the "Starbucks theory of war" (two nations with Starbucks won't fight each other) and the "Google Theory of Peace" (where information and knowledge cross frontiers, armies will not).

He then cited the work of Rudy Rummel on democracy and war, stating that between 1860 and 2005 there have been 371 wars, of which 205 were between non-democratic nations, 166 were between democracies and non-democracies, and 0 were between democracies. He said that some have challenged the details of the classifications, but that in general, democracies seem to be less likely to engage in war as a means of resolving disputes.

He concluded by saying that rising above tribal instincts is hard, and quoted Katherine Hepburn's line from "The African Queen": "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we must rise above."

I didn't get a chance to ask my question in the Q&A, but I went up to Shermer afterward and suggested that the tribal in-group seems to be a biological/mathematical limitation of our memories and processing capabilities with respect to the number of combinations of relationships we can track. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar's work on this topic has led to what is called the "Dunbar number" or a "Dunbar circle," which is the number of people you can keep track of and that make up your in-group, and it's about 150. Studies of Facebook users show that even those with thousands of friends still engage in most of their interactions with a group of 150 or fewer. So my question was, in light of that limitation, how can we rise above tribal membership? Shermer's answer was the same one I would have given, which is that although we may still be limited to that number of relationships, today they don't have to be limited by geography, and so the way to "rise above" is to have lots of these small groups. Shermer suggested that we need to avoid any such groups having a political monopoly, but the real concern is how those small groups build coalitions which obtain and exercise political power, and what they try to do with it. I'm not sure there's any getting around the problem of having political institutions which govern vastly larger numbers of people.

My own opinion on whether "skepticism" should be apolitical and avoid religious topics is that skeptical organizations should avoid taking positions on those topics, except where there are clear empirically testable hypotheses. (For example, it should be perfectly legitimate for a skeptical organization to publish an examination of the social and psychological factors that cause people to give credence to crackpots like Orly Taitz and Philip Berg, and their respective bogus Kenyan and Canadian Obama birth certificates--as well as to examine the facts around topics like the "birther" controversy.) Individual skeptics, however, should feel free to argue for whatever positions they hold, while being cognizant of what is within the realm of the empirical and what is more philosophical. I don't think Shermer's talk should have been ruled inappropriate for TAM, though I would have liked to have seen a bit more science and argument in the talk, and I wouldn't want to see a whole bunch of talks that all touched on politics or religion, especially if they all came from a single viewpoint.

(UPDATE: I recently came across something I wrote relevant to this point about ten years ago on Usenet, which I still agree with today:

"The skeptic's position should be, on any issue where there isn't conclusive evidence one way or another, either agnosticism or tentative acceptance of the view that seems to be best supported--but with tolerance for those who accept other views which are also inconclusively supported by the evidence. In other words, there is no and should be no official skeptic's position.

Further, there shouldn't be an official skeptic's position on subjects which are matters of political ideology, religious faith, or metaphysical views on which empirical science is silent.")

Adam Savage
Adam Savage of Mythbusters gave a talk not directly related to skepticism, but to which everyone could relate--a talk about personal failure. He said that he is often asked how he attained his success, and he said that he didn't follow a straight path and that he had a lot of failures along the way. He began by referring to Aaron Sorkin's "Sports Night," which he called the best 26 hours of television. In an episode of the second season, a billionaire who's going to buy the show says, "Dana. I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better. And that's what you should do."

Savage said that he wanted to present the details of how spectacular and painful some of his failures have been. He said that he's been fired from a production assistant job, he's been divorced, and he's yelled at his kids. All of our lives are two steps forward, one step back. He got a job at Industrial Light and Magic, working with his heroes, a job he'd wanted since he was 11. In the SFX industry, everybody is freelance, working on jobs for a time, and always looking for the next. But at ILM, there is no selling required. He said your resume is just three words--just four words--Industrial Light and Magic. And he would also take extra outside jobs.

His friend Ben called him with a job that he couldn't take because of the short turn-around time. A department store wanted a window display within five days, that depicted a ballpark fence. What they wanted was baseballs automatically being pitched over the fence on a continuous basis.

Savage bid his day rate, $300-$500/day, plus a market-rate rush fee. It was a really fat paycheck for five days work. He got pitching machines and a ballfeeder, built it, and watched it work 70 times in a row, and then fail. He figured this was a solvable problem. He stayed up all night Friday and Saturday morning trying to get it to work--it was originally supposed to be ready by Saturday, and needed on Monday (?)--and brought it to the store to assemble. It turned out that the size of the display area was different from what he was told, and in the new set up it was down to 30-40 balls in a row before failure, so would fail every 3 hours. He observed that there's a reason the displays in airports with balls moving around on tracks use fixed rails, rather than tubes like he was using--rails lead to balls moving in a predictable amount of time, while the air resistance in a tube makes the timing unpredictable. So he added an air blower to force the balls down the tubes.

The next problem was that when one pitching machine pitches, it takes more power, which causes the other two machines to slow down, increasing the failure rate. He had relatives coming into town at 6 p.m. on Saturday and it still wasn't working. He came to the conclusion that no amount of effort is going to make it work, and told his employer that in 30 minutes he would present three alternatives and have whichever one they chose implemented by 8 a.m. the next morning. He came up with a new solution using a monofilament chain connected to the balls, simulating the motion of a pitched ball--no pitching machines. He stayed up all night and visited Home Depot repeatedly, and finally got it working with 10 baseballs.

The National Head of Display came to look at the display, and said, "it looks great, but I don't like the balls--get rid of them."

Savage's second story of failure was from earlier in his career, when he "pretended to attend NYU for a year" and then worked with his film student friends on their films. He worked on a friend's film that was filmed at the Alexis Theater, and the film ended up winning the NYU Film Festival's best art direction prize. So he thought about becoming an art director, and put his name out. He was asked to work on a friend Gabby's film, with an $850 budget. He needed to build a set of a room with a glass door with an ATM in it, which he figured he could do with wood frames and canvas for the walls, a shell for a computer as the ATM, and a plexiglass door.

He never asked for help.

He worked Wednesday through Saturday morning, without sleep for 60 hours, and wasn't close. The screen on the ATM cracked--he figured, it's supposed to be an urban environment, it will be fine. He didn't pre-prep the canvas, so it all become horribly wrinkled. He put down linoleum on the carpet of the home where the set was being built for the floor. At some point, a member of the crew asked him, "Do you even know what you're doing?" He responded with what he thought was a clever line from Raiders of the Lost Ark, "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go along." The response from the crew member: "Go home." So he did.

The following Monday, he went to the set to pick up his toolbox, and it wasn't there. There was a note that said "We have your toolbox. Call me. Gabby." He called her, and she said, "What did you do to me? You screwed me. You pissed away the money. If you could do anything to destroy our friendship, this is it. I want you to account for every penny." He cried and called his father, who told him, "All you can do is move forward." He went and met with Gabby, and accounted for every penny that he had spent. She then said, "The crew is next door, and they want to talk to you."

He went to the room next door, and found a dark room with a chair in the middle, with a spotlight focused on it. He sat in it, and the director read from a pad of paper all of the things that Adam had said he would do, but didn't. This litany of offenses was periodically interrupted by a member of the crew adding something, like the fact that the linoleum he put down ruined the carpet in the apartment. There was also one point during the work where Savage was across town having sex instead of working on the set, and somehow the crew knew about that, too, and brought it up.

Finally, they asked him what he had to say for himself. He simply agreed--"You're absolutely right. I screwed up. I'm sorry." He added four meta-levels of sorry, and said that he knows it doesn't mean or help anything. At that point, the director said, after a long pause--"look, we're not trying to bring you down or anything."

Savage then quoted, from memory, from Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, which begins with four people in a public park running towards a balloon accident. In the opening, he writes something like "running towards a catastrophe, a kind of furnace in which are characters would be buckled into new shapes."

He said that he doesn't trust working with people who don't know or understand failure--failure builds character. And whatever you think now (about anything?), you're probably wrong.

He ended first by reading from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, which went something like this: "We find out moments of sadness terrifying because we are standing in a place we cannot stand. It's important to be lonely and attentive when one is sad, because that is when you learn." And then by saying that his favorite fictional character is Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, because Chandler so clearly describes his flaws and foibles. He said that if the world were full of people like Marlowe, the world would be a safer place, but not boring.

There followed a Q&A, most of the questions were about Mythbusters, except for one question which Savage answered about Rilke's hatred of Rodin (and writing "what is fame but a collection of misunderstandings about a name?") and another which he answered by describing his "boyhood dream" to win an Ig Nobel Prize for writing a taxonomy of nonsense words for large and small numbers.

(Savage gave a similar talk at Defcon 17, available online.)

(Click on the link to continue to a summary of the rest of the Saturday sessions at TAM7--a panel on the ethics of deception, the Skeptical Citizen Award, a Jerry Andrus video, Stephen Bauer's talk on Jerry Andrus and his estate, a panel on skepticism and the media, Phil Plait on Doomsday 2012, and a JREF update.)


Brian Barker said...

In discussing a new global language, don't forget Esperanto.

Your readers may be interested in Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

The argument for Esperanto can be seen at

Jim Lippard said...

I like the idea of Esperanto and know a few speakers. (I took the ten free lessons myself years ago, but never pursued it further.) It does seem to be a good way of putting people on a more equal footing by using a non-native language, so long as it doesn't ever become a native language. But it doesn't seem to have reached anything like critical mass, and has been criticized for not quite meeting its own ideals by being overly Indo-European in its roots--though that hasn't stopped it from being used by native speakers of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Hungarian.

Jim Lippard said...

Ah, looks like there are native speakers of Esperanto, including George Soros!

Ktisophilos said...

Shermer is certainly right about free trade. But your favoured president Obama is channelling Herbert Hoover in imposing yet more protectionist measures on tyres from China. Way to go: repeating exactly the same thing that made the Depression "Great". America under Uncle Barack's protection(ism) can now look forward to higher consumer prices for tyres, the same sort of trade war that followed the Hoover-signed Smoot–Hawley tariffs, downturns in businesses using tyres, and in businesses that have less patronage because consumers have less money left over because of overpriced tyres.

Bastiat, cited by Shermer, demolished protectionist arguments 160 years ago in Part 7 of his brilliant essay What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Incidentally, Part 5 demolishes government "stimulus" packages.