So, I joined a Facebook group.

November 4, 2010

Specifically, a boycott organization group for companies that donate to political campaigns. The group’s called “The People’s Boycott”.

The Citizens United decision gave corporations license to steamroll our democracy with raw cash, and the rest of us have no democratic recourse short of a constitutional amendment that strips corporations of personhood, and, well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

In the meantime, I’m going to be doing my little part to drive as many politically-involved corporations out of business as possible. Persons should equate to political power – not dollars. And if someone’s going to use their dollars to weaken my political power, well, then I’d rather they not have any dollars.

So, here’s the link one more time: http://www.facebook.com/home.php?sk=group_165989556764257

Predatory Business – Payment Plans

July 26, 2010

So a while back, I wrote a bit about how business practices coincided with other vulnerability exploitation approaches. I’ve decided to point out a good case study: Cell phone payment plans.

Really, this applies to any industry in which you’re given the choice of payment option before you receive the product, and particularly before you know what product you even want, but cell phones work particularly well as an example because they function on a sophisticated network governed by computers.

Billing is fairly easy to integrate into cell phone infrastructure – so easy that some companies can update your billing information very quickly, during use of the service. It would be trivial for such a company to have a universal payment plan which charged a small rate for each minute/text/photo/gigabyte of bandwidth/etc, or a universal payment plan which charged a monthly rate for unlimited use of services.

Instead, consumers are faced with a large array of wholly unnecessary choices for varying plans – for what purpose? Well, since we know businesses don’t exactly operate out of the goodness of their hearts, I think it’s safe to conclude that the cell phone companies are making money off of this setup somehow.

I would hypothesize the profitability of such plans come from two sources:

The illusion of choice: By offering options, even if they aren’t meaningful options, a cell phone company can make claims to superior service, particularly superior customer service… which is particularly ironic considering that the second source of revenue from such plans is…
High penalty fees: By offering options to people based on their needs before they make use of the product, cell phone companies can extort extra money from people whenever their needs change.

Here we can contemplate the mindset that produces and tolerates such business practices – practices which functionally predate upon consumers to score extra money, rather than endeavoring to make additional profit through providing a superior service (which, if you listen to an economist, is supposedly how capitalism works).

The mindset that produces such business practices is, obviously, the for-profit business mindset. The idea that the shareholders need to receive their cut of profit and that businesses shouldn’t let piddling concepts like ethics or decency get in the way – an idea that dominates much of America’s economy.

I’m probably more interested in the mindset that has us tolerate such practices and continue to do business with companies that use them. You’d think it’d be insulting for a company to treat us like prey rather than people, and yet we as a people don’t seem to care.

I think, instead, that what’s going on in our society is a widespread application of ‘just-world’ justification – where we find ourselves subconsciously permitting and even forgiving the misdeeds of others – in this case, the exploitative pricing strategies of cell phone companies – by blaming the victims of such predation. “So he’s stuck with a three-year contract for a phone that won’t work in his house?” someone might say, “He should’ve done more research into if his phone would work.” – thus blaming the victim for a problem generated not at all by the victim, but by the predatory contract.

This is not to say that there isn’t something we can each of us do to avoid becoming a victim – just that we’re doing the wrong thing as a culture at the moment. If we each try to play their game, letting them attempt to predate upon us and feeling good about ourselves when we get lucky (because it’s not a person’s fault if, for instance, their circumstances change and they need a different service than in the plan they’re contracted for), then we all remain prey.

I would propose that the way to escape being prey is to stop tolerating corporate predation altogether – if your cell phone company offers unnecessarily complex plans and contracts designed to scam people, don’t do business with them at all. People who prey on others should not be rewarded, even by people who aren’t suffering at their hands at the moment.

Thinking About Thinking: Lateral Thinking

June 5, 2010

You’ve probably heard of critical thinking. Basically, it’s a set of techniques that you can use in order to decipher facts, investigate ideas, and so on. Critical thinking makes you better, as it were, at thinking. If thinking was swimming, critical thinking would be the ability to swim down and hold your breath.

But that’s not all thinking is. Lots of people write a lot of stuff about critical thinking, so I’ll not touch much on it at the moment. For now, I want to focus on lateral thinking. As you might be able to tell from their respective wikipedia articles, critical thinking gets way more attention than lateral thinking does – lateral thinking doesn’t get much at all in comparison, despite it being if anything more important – if thinking were swimming, lateral thinking would be the kind of swimming you’d do to actually go places.

A lot of that’s probably because there’s no clear method to teach lateral thinking – thoughts about it tend to go along the lines of, “How the heck does one teach creativity!” and giving up. When I did it, I instead started with, “So, how does my lateral thinking works, and why can’t I just try telling people to do that?”

So I figure, well, first I pick stuff up. Stories, ideas, riddles, that sort of thing. Most of my wit comes from somewhere else and then gets changed in my mind just enough to be useful for my purposes. I don’t think about how I do it – I just think about the things I do it with. Once I think about them long enough my brain just applies them automatically to other things. I suspect that if you have something in your mind, and then get another thing put in your mind, then your mind will automatically explore putting those two together.

So it’s like putting together lego blocks – you want a good supply of different ones so that you’ll always have something for the need. That requires seeing a lot of stuff and understanding it.

Now, just seeing something doesn’t put it in my lego idea bin. I need to understand something to do that, and to do that I need to put that thing into my own words. This links up the new idea with ideas already in my mind. So the kind of thing where someone says, “So it’s like so-and-so but different ’cause of someotherthing”? That’s really important.

Next step, lowering one’s inhibitions. A lot of lateral thinking is just silly-sounding (ninja zombies: more or less effective than normal ninjas?), so if you get comfortable with saying silly things, you eventually get comfortable with thinking silly things – which ultimately helps you to think creatively when you start out with something silly but then it turns out to not be silly at all.

That’s all I’ve got at the moment. Might think more about it later.

The Supply and Demand of Capital

May 23, 2010

This originally started as a comment I made on a blog, and I figured it was worth expanding and posting here.

Overview

All right, get into economic theory thought mode here, because I’m going to be talking about capitalism and supply and demand.

Specifically, the supply and demand of capital itself.

You see, businesses need funding to get started and to expand – this funding is called capital (or ‘venture capital’, for starting some new companies). People with money to spare offer up venture capital, and people who start and run businesses accept it and use it to expand the economy.

Supply for capital is dictated by how much money people have that they don’t need or want to use to consume – these people offer up capital to someone else in exchange for interest on the money they offer up.

Demand for capital is dictated by how much people are consuming – the more people are consuming, the more businesses can expand and the more room for new businesses there are.

Market correction, more supply with less demand

Now, when supply outpaces demand, you end up in a situation where you have people with a whole lot of money, but there’s simply not much to do with it. Businesses that meet all sorts of demand are already well-funded, but people still want to be able to invest capital into them so they can make money.

This makes capital ‘cheaper’ – that is to say, it becomes easier for people running riskier or less profitable businesses to get capital. As supplies of capital continue to increase faster than demand, more and more money is placed in such risky investments.

Eventually, some of the riskier of those investments fail – this reduces the supply of capital, and reverses the trend – now investments that used to be reasonable become too risky to remain invested in, so people start pulling out their money.

But because the value of capital has increased, _nobody_ wants to buy these risky investments, because they are no longer worth the money you’d have to put into them. This means the people who owned those investments must sell them at a fraction of the price, losing much of their wealth and further reducing the supply of capital, which causes the cycle to repeat.

This cycle continues until demand for wealth outstrips supply enough for the economy to start growing again, and in the meantime destroys phenomenal amounts of wealth. This is how a market crash (and subsequent recession/depression) happens.

When the rich become richer, the amount of free capital increases. Conservative economic policies encourage this, and ultimately encourage this kind of market crash.

Market stagnation, more demand with less supply

This is not to say that it’s good for demand to strongly outstrip supply – this makes it harder for people with good ideas to obtain venture capital, as investors of capital have more freedom to ‘shop around’ for higher value, lower risk assets. This means that there will be more economic growth per dollar of capital, yes, and much more stability for that capital, but less total growth.

The market can correct for this situation as well, as people pay more for the limited supply of goods they want, business owners make more profit, which generates capital that can be reinvested towards producing more goods.

This circumstance happens when there are more people demanding goods than there is wealth to facilitate the production of them, generally the result of government policies which reduce profits and improve quality of life for the less wealthy.

Government influence and striking the balance

As this supply/demand relationship among the most expansive that can exist in an economy, government has great ability to influence it incidentally.

Government policies that influence this relationship include but are by no means limited to:

  1. Taxes – progressive taxation systems increase the amount of money that can be spent, which increases demand for capital, and regressive taxation increases the amount of money that goes into supply of capital. The “middle class” is an interesting phenomenon here, as individuals in the middle class both consume, and contribute investment capital – meaning that taxation that discourages the growth of a middle class would probably not significantly affect this relationship, but would reasonably slow an economy nonetheless by reducing both supply of and demand for capital.
  2. Fractional Reserve Banking Policy – Fractional reserve banking is a financial technique where banks get to lend out some of the money they have rather than keep it all in reserve, so long as they keep enough money onhand to be able to manage their activities. This technique increases the supply for capital without capital holders needing to have as much excess wealth to burn, and makes the supply for capital more dynamic and able to respond to a changing economy, but it can be hazardous in the event of a large market crash, as it can cause banks to fail if the market takes too big a hit, too quickly. For this reason, Fractional Reserve policies do not function optimally in environments where supply of capital is naturally abundant compared to demand.
  3. Consumer protection, regulation, etc – The government often uses laws to force businesses to take a stake in their communities, be it through regulation of their practices, regulation over profits vs. reinvestment, minimum wages and labor laws, and so forth. Such regulations, when done properly, generally reduce profits, which decrease capital supplies. Some regulatory measures, such as labor laws, can improve demand for capital by improving worker quality of life.

Government action has a significant amount of influence over the supply and demand of capital through these measures – proper management of these measures can be used to reduce the frequency and severity of market crashes, or to stimulate additional economic growth in the face of high demand for goods.

Sources and forms of capital

Capital doesn’t just come in one flavor. Capital comes from various sources and systems and where it comes from helps to shape the nature of the economy it goes into.

  1. Loans – Loans are a source of capital in which, if the business owner can pay off the loan, the owner then owns the business investment. Fractional reserve banking increases the availability of loans.
  2. Venture capital – Venture capital is a source of capital in which the venture capitalist owns the business investment (or, more frequently, owns a high percentage of it), but grants control of the capital to the individual operating the business. Venture capital is generally intended to ‘cash in’ by selling the company once it has grown, rather than draw profit from the asset.
  3. Public ownership – The company is considered an asset and private individuals or organizations own parts, or hold stock, in the company – an initial release of stock (called an “IPO”) generates capital for the company directly from investors. This stock generally carries with it a degree of control over the company’s operations, and frequently stock corporations are designed to return maximum profit at the demand of stock holders.

Here we can see that different types of capital are facilitated by different sources – the availability of loans, for instance, improves when more assets are placed in banks, and the lucrativeness of public ownership increases when more individuals have wealth to place directly into investment.

Conclusion

Was I supposed to be going somewhere with all that? Well.

An economy thrives best when the supply and demand for capital are balanced, and increasing at the same rate. Excessive supply of capital can be catastrophic to an economy, and excessive demand slows growth.

Indicators of excess supply include booming stock prices and easily-obtainable credit (especially credit used to artificially bolster demand for capital, such as from credit cards). Indicators of excess demand include goods and services shortages.

Generally, a strong supply can be correlated with a more wealthy upper class, and a strong demand can be correlated with a robust lower and middle class and good quality of life.

Conservative policies have led to an extremely wealthy upper class, lower quality of life for the lower and middle classes, and sporadic, catastrophic market crashes. America desperately needs the rich to be less rich, for its’ own health.

Or, in summary, rich people really are bad – at least if there are too many of them, or they’re too rich.

A Proposal for an Alternate Business Model

May 15, 2010

So I think I can propose a better way to operate a business than the existing for-profit stock model.

Well, ‘better’ in the sense of being more sustainable, being better capable of nurturing a community rather than taking from it, and possibly even better at providing a superior product.

What I’m thinking, is that a company could shift to a profit-through-tip-only system.

All revenue is reinvested into the company (the employees, especially management, would need to be appropriately wage controlled), and the company is not publicly traded (I don’t think it would work with a public company, at least in the concept’s present, fledgling form). Instead, customers are at some point informed that the company is not a traditional for-profit company and that the only profits the company makes are through tips.

Tips rendered by customers are given in some proportion to the owners, as well as the workers.

This means that, instead of a profit motive oriented around increasing revenue and reducing costs, the profit motive is now oriented more directly around customer satisfaction. It also provides a stronger incentive to nurture the community, as you would want customers willing to be charitable and having the cash onhand to do so.

The idea has significant potential problems.

  • I can’t think of a good way to apply it to a publicly traded business.
  • It’d probably be less profitable than a profit-oriented business, so a free market would never pick up on it. Even if it was more profitable, the focus isn’t on profit, so there’s little reason to believe such a shortsighted culture as a free market culture would ever pick up on it anyway.
  • The model probably wouldn’t work at all when dealing with for-profit companies as clients – what for-profit company would ever issue a tip? Only human beings can be counted on for the charity that would make this model work.
  • It wouldn’t discourage advertisement and other manipulation of customers, even exploitative methods.

Nonetheless, I think it shows promise.

A Parable About Roofing

November 27, 2009

A parent and their child live in a house together. One day, the child comes across the parent, working on the house’s roof.

“What are you doing up there?” the child asks.

“I’m working on the roof, it needs fixing.” the parent says.

“But,” the child says, confused, “You don’t know anything about how to fix a roof.”

“Be that as it may, someone needs to fix the roof and it might as well be me.”

“I think we should get a roofer to do it,” the child says. “So get down from there before you fall or something!”

The parent huffs stubbornly, “We can’t trust a roofer. They could do shoddy work or overcharge us and we’d never know until it was too late.”

“Well,” the child says, “We can do it ourselves, I guess, but we need to learn what we need to do first. Let’s go to the library and look up how to roof a house.”

“Nope!” the parent says. “Can’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because the books on roofing are all biased towards what roofers think.”

The child says, “Well… yes? Books about roofing are written by roofers.”

“Ah-ha!” the parent says triumphantly, standing upright on the roof, swaying slightly in the breeze. “You see? It’s all biased towards roofers, instead of us everyday folk who can’t roof a house!”

“But why not learn to roof the house so you can know what you’re doing!?” the child yells, exasperated.

“But I do know what I’m doing!” the parent said.

“You asked a roofer how to do it?”

“No!”

“Oh, so you already read a roofing book.”

“Of course not!”

”…You got on the internet and found a guide?”

“No!”

“Okay, I give up.”

The parent states proudly, “I joined The Nonroofer Organization.”

“The what?”

“The Nonroofer Organization. We’re a bunch of people who don’t know how to  roof houses, advocating for the right to be able to roof our houses without roofers telling us what to do! Roofing freedom for all!”

“I, uh… but… Now my brain hurts.” the child says, eyes closed and fingers massaging temples. “But what if you screw up and the roof collapses or something?”

“Risk is a necessary part of freedom,” the parent says, looking towards the horizon. “It’s just something we all have to accept.”

“But I don’t want the roof to collapse on me!” the child says.

“Don’t worry, it won’t collapse, I’ll do this right.”

“No you won’t! You don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll make the roof collapse and squish us!”

“Hey, I told you not to worry – I’m trusting my gut, and I’m trusting God, and that should be enough.”

“Uh…” the child says, “Can I spend the night at a friend’s house?”

Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 2: Treating the Problem

November 13, 2009

So, in Part 1 to this two-part series, I analyzed the phenomenon of pseudoscience not from an intellectual perspective, but from a pathological one. If you haven’t read it, go back and do that now because you’ll probably be lost on this article if you don’t.

Earlier, this article had identified pseudoscience as not an intellectual ailment, but a social and emotional one. As such, I would advocate a socially and emotionally-oriented treatment: A psychotherapeutic approach specifically designed to treat pseudoscience.

Please mind that this method is likely to share all the problems with psychotherapy as a whole, including, most notably, inconsistency in treatment effectiveness due to the strong interpersonal aspect of the treatment. I hope to outline the method clearly enough in this article to eliminate inconsistency caused by the application of different methods, but I’m sure that just about anyone who actually bothers to apply the method would add their own little spin on it in no time – not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, this method is unlikely to be able to address the problems with those who originate pseudoscientific communities – just people indoctrinated into them.

Yet, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s much else we can do. Pseudoscience involves the malfunction of some of our most fundamental functions as human beings, and applying, say, drugs to fix the problem is likely to cause way more problems than is worth.

The first thing to address is mental preparation – to ensure that you have all the cognitive tools required to try to cure a pseudoscientist.

  • Understanding: A strong layman’s understanding of the topic in question. You don’t need a specialist’s understanding, but you do need to grasp the subject in general terms.
  • Google-fu: Be able to quickly scour and parse the internet’s vast data repository, with a particular eye towards Google Scholar, a database of scientific papers. Awareness of a wide variety of specialized sources (such as an online bible, or TVTropes) is a plus. This point is why you don’t need a specialist’s understanding about anything – the internet can provide.
  • Empathy: Understand that you are interfacing with a real person, with a real problem, and who needs your help to overcome that problem.
  • Perceptiveness: Be able to gauge the emotional and social subtext behind a conversation, not just the intellectual content of that conversation.
  • Patience: Understand that you may need to explain things which you find to be very, very obvious. Do so in clear terms and without condescension, and reiterate when necessary.
  • Articulation: Be able to describe even fundamental ideas in a way that they can be understood by an individual who does not know them, so that you can convey them. Also, be able to rephrase statements in the form of (possibly rhetorical) questions.
  • A grasp of the scientific method on a philosophical level: You need to be able to describe, in plain-language terms, not only how the scientific method functions, but why it functions, and what it accomplishes in general.

All the above skills, in aggregate, will be referred to as your “toolbox”. The importance of each of the tools in said toolbox will be made clear below.

Now, to the method itself.

Recall the core pathology of pseudoscience: extreme emotional investment in a group. This subverts the individual’s intellectual functions towards protecting what they feel as the group’s doctrine against outsiders, rather than analyzing it objectively, and presents a block insurmountable by logical argumentation alone. The first phase of this method must be to remove or bypass that block.

Fortunately, the pathological analysis of the function provides insight as to key points that we can use to disable this self-reinforcing behavior:

  • Pathological pseudoscience is triggered by social conflict with a member of another group. Thus, therapy should include taking actions that let the patient see you as an individual, rather than as a member of an ‘enemy’ social group. I feel that this point builds the strong interpersonal relationship necessary to treat the condition, and as such I feel it to be a necessary part of the approach.
  • Pathological pseudoscience requires strong identification with a group. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that ease the emotional intensity of group association. Be careful with this point, as I imagine it’s very easy when taking this route to appear as an enemy (trying to ‘trick’ the patient into betraying his group), and thus carries some risk of triggering the condition.
  • Pathological pseudoscience is directed to the protection of what the patient believes is the group’s position. Thus, therapy could include taking actions that allow the patient to disassociate information with group membership, allowing him to analyze that information without triggering the condition.

At this stage of therapy, approach without hostility or aggressiveness – even intellectual aggressiveness if necessary (that is to say, don’t bother making any arguments, as they’ll just trigger the condition). Establish a personal rapport with the patient, preferably through discussion of an unrelated subject which the patient does not suffer pseudoscientific symptoms with. Optimally, demonstrate superior comprehension of one or more subjects on which the subject can be corrected, in order to instill in the subject respect for your opinions.

It should be noted that this approach should work optimally in a 1 on 1 scenario: If there is any quantity of individuals observing the exchange, you significantly increase the chances of the condition triggering if the patient has reason to believe the observers are at all relevant to the pseudoscientific affliction (either agreeing or actively disagreeing, and thus either part of the in-group or ‘enemies’ of that group). For that reason, I feel the effectiveness of the therapy would rapidly degrade as the number of observers increase.

Broach the afflicted subject or subjects with care, do not aggressively pursue afflicted subjects for discussion, and do not use statements of fact to correct the patient’s errors at this stage. Instead, rephrase your corrections into legitimate questions and posit them as if you’re genuinely curious as to the answer, ensuring to describe the logic that leads you to ask the question. While a statement correcting the patient strongly risks triggering the condition, a question the patient feels to be asked legitimately encourages a legitimate response, and reduces the chances of triggering the condition. This could allow you to make progress with the patient despite the condition.

For a small subset of patients, I imagine this could be sufficient – in particular, individuals already familiar with the scientific method and knowledgeable about the ‘enemy’ positions could draw their own conclusions once they have reached a point sufficient to become able to openly question the pseudoscience.

However, many more will need assistance in questioning the positions of their in-group. Thus, the second phase of the method is to instill in the patient the tools they need to effectively evaluate ideas.

Transitioning into this phase is unlikely to be an exact science, so I suggest that during this phase the first-phase measures are still kept in mind and adhered to when reasonable. As such, the second phase is more a progression stemming from the first rather than an entirely new approach.

Essentially, the second phase involves trying to teach the patient such that they understand, can follow, and want to follow the scientific method in order to better understand ideas. You never need to say what it is you’re trying to do – you should never even need to say the words ‘scientific method’ (in fact, doing so, particularly with individuals who have been exposed to people trying to correct them through argumentation, might even trigger the condition). Also importantly, don’t impose or push the information on the patient. Give them as much as they want, when they ask, and if you have sufficient control of the conversation you can try to work them into a position where they will ask, but do not teach without establishing that the patient is ready to try to learn.

Mind, when you teach, to focus on the three things we’re trying to get the patient to accomplish:

  • Understanding: The scientific method, at its’ core, is simply a series of techniques that people use in order to better evaluate information – so that they can know what is correct and what isn’t. Conveying this to some individuals may be exceedingly difficult, and may require extensive explanation at a very basic level. Be prepared to use simple examples in order to convey scientific methodological concepts, and try to build upon things you’ve already established whenever possible.
  • Capability: Ensure that the patient has understood the methods you’re teaching by encouraging the patient to apply them. Upon correct application, I recommend praising the patient to whatever degree you feel you can without sounding patronizing (patronization could be interpreted as an attack on a social or emotional level, and trigger the condition).
  • Inclination: This is the most important part – in fact, many patients may be aware of scientific methodology and simply not grasp the value of using it. This is why you need to be able to describe not just the how, but the why of science. Science is a way to understand and know more comprehensively, and knowledge is power. Science offers a potential solution to almost any conceivable problem, and you may even have an opportunity to use your previously established personal rapport with the patient in order to make a personal connection between the patient’s problems, and the ability of the scientific method to solve them.

When the patient openly, and completely without prompting, seems to be applying scientific methodology to the pseudoscientific affliction, this signals that it is time to move into the third and final phase.

The final phase is to hold a calm, logical discussion with the patient that directly and thoroughly addresses the topic. Mind that the subject could be new to this kind of thinking and be prepared to help walk them through the logical process. Have information resources onhand and, if the patient questions them, or brings up anything that you can not readily answer, work with the patient to find out the answers or evaluate any questionable sources.

Man, this took forever to write! Anyway, that’s my proposed treatment for any and all forms of pseudoscience. I hope people who read it find it insightful and helpful, and if it leads to anyone being cured, all the better.

As for myself, having written this article has gotten me thinking about normal human thought – pseudoscience is a dysfunction, but it’s a dysfunction stemming from a series of perfectly normal features of human cognition. What insights could such an understanding provide about the thoughts of people in general? Also, having proposed a rather extensive hypothesis regarding interaction between human socialization and human intelligence, I should probably think up experimental scenarios that could be used to verify aspects of that hypothesis.

Interacting With Creationists and Other Pseudoscientists, Part 1: Identifying the Problem

November 13, 2009

I’ve spent a significant amount of my time on the internet arguing with people. Often, with people so hopelessly lost in incredibly bad ideas that my interaction brings with it painfully little chance to drag them out.

But I’m a stubborn individual, and I’ve accumulated a lot of experience in the dusty corners of the internet, and I think I’d like to share my insights regarding interactions with pseudoscientists, such as young-earth Creationists. I’d like to think that insight would be interesting and help people to better correct people with incorrect ideas.

My advice only applies to well-prepared individuals with a degree of background understanding (a layman’s understanding of the topic will do, but you’re likely to need to compensate in other areas), who are interacting with individuals holding ideas which are known by the scientific community to be discredited (young-earth Creationism, global warming denying, homeopathy, etc). This approach will not be particularly applicable if you’re groping in the dark on the topic or if the discussion is a legitimate debate with someone holding a potentially correct position.

For starters, I think most people misdiagnose the problem with pseudoscience and those who have been indoctrinated into it. The common, intuitive, and direct approach to dealing with false information is to enter into a logical argument to demonstrate that the information is false. However, as you can see from the stubborn persistence of pseudoscience in the modern world, this approach often does not work.

The next step to go from there is to analyze why the debate-oriented approach towards correcting pseudoscience has such a low rate of success. Again, the common and intuitive conclusion is to assume the pseudoscientist lacks the ability to comprehend your argument, lacks the integrity to accept it, or is otherwise personally deficient and thus the failure is none of the business of the scientific debater – once the scientific debater presents their argument and it is not properly addressed, they are done, and can wash their hands of the business having said they have exhausted all options for the approach.

I think we need something more oriented towards results than that approach. Something that can allow us to fix pseudoscientists when we encounter them, with a high success rate – a cure for pseudoscience, as it were.

Which leads me to the primary and most critical theme of this article: Pseudoscience is not a mistake made by an individual that must be corrected, but a disease, afflicting a patient, that must be cured. The very large distinctions in approach I will propose compared with a debate-oriented approach stem directly from this paradigm.

The first major difference is that, if we’re to identify pseudoscience as a sickness, we can attempt to describe its’ pathology, or what precisely is malfunctioning in a pseudoscientist, as a first step towards a stronger understanding of the condition.

Under normal function, a human being will:

  • Evaluate (however briefly) information that they perceive in order to gauge its’ accuracy and truthfulness, and then take appropriate measures.
  • Check information for self-consistency if given a reason to do so.

Instead, a pseudoscientist will manifest the following impairments, impairments which constitute a large portion of the set of pseudoscientific behaviors:

  • Exhibit strong confirmation bias towards information relevant to the affliction.
  • Demonstrate extreme cognitive dissonance rather than analyze information relevant to the affliction for self-consistency.

The first major insight we can gain is the observation that pseudoscientists are not necessarily universally impaired in these functions – outside of the pseudoscience-afflicted area, a pseudoscientist can function intellectually without impairment. This implies that these malfunctions are not the primary cause of pseudoscience but either secondary causes or symptoms of the primary cause. In essence, a pseudoscientist is not necessarily of low intelligence, or intellectually impaired in any way other than the affliction of the pseudoscience itself. So we should stop calling them stupid, because they aren’t.

Now, the above describes a large portion of pseudoscientific behavior, but does not  by any means catch all behaviors associated with pseudoscience. Explaining the others is where my pet hypothesis (and proposed cure stemming from this hypothesis) comes into play.

Other behaviors pseudoscientists have a particular propensity for*:

  • A strong “Us vs. Them” mentality: pseudoscientists describe those who disagree with them (frequently actual scientists, or even scientifically literate laymen) in strong oppositional terms that often isn’t relevant to the specific subject matter that they would be discussing. (As an aside, google “us vs them”. I found the unusually politically charged results to be fascinating)
  • Spectacle: Unlike science, ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ for pseudoscience. Pseudoscience promotes aggressive, emotionally charged debate, and actual logical discussion is irrelevant to the approach. Rather, victory or defeat is called (well, victory is called, anyway, more on that momentarily) based on the status of the emotional undercurrent of the discussion, in a manner similar to how children argue with each other. That is to say, when arguing with a pseudoscience advocate, his objective isn’t really to make you think differently – it’s to make you feel differently.
  • Strong group pride: The strong social bond between pseudoscientists of the same flavor extends beyond the attacking of external forces. Pseudoscientists are known for making their own in-groups, including schools (complete with unaccredited degrees), journals (not strictly scientific journals, though, as they tend to lack peer review and other features which make scientific journals scientific), “Think Tanks” for PR purposes, and other socially or professionally flavored clubs. And, indeed, clubs they are, albeit themed by the pseudoscience. Pseudoscientific groups do not promote intellectual interaction, and this implies they do not exist for intellectual reasons. Pseudoscientific groups instead primarily provide social and emotional functions.
    This is further observable when pseudoscientists lose debates, even by the emotionally-charged pseudoscientist standard – the group simply forgets the event has happened, in what seems to be a subconscious act of in-group support. This phenomenon also cripples any attempts pseudoscientists may have to enforce internal intellectual consistency, as people violating that consistency can simply be forgiven without censure or possibly even conscious thought.

Do you see where I’m going with this yet? Pathological pseudoscience seems to be identified by exceptionally strong affiliation with a strongly-defined social group. Mind, here, that when I say ‘strongly-defined’, I’m not referring to any purpose a social group may have in and of itself. On the contrary, I would identify a strongly-defined social group as one that defines the group’s enemies.

Now, we know already that strong group cohesiveness can impair individual thinking. Pathological pseudoscience seems to be a phenomenon related to groupthinking, but I feel it to be much more powerful. Pseudoscientific groups aggressively pursue strong group cohesion, which is likely made stronger still by the perception that the pseudoscientists face a powerful, monolithic enemy – that enemy being, collectively, everyone who thinks they’re wrong. And conflict with those individuals, rather than correcting them, only stands to make the affliction worse, as the more absurd (and thus memorable) the actions an individual is forced to take to defend the group, the stronger their later emotional self-reinforcement towards that group could become.

So, to summarize: I feel that pseudoscience is identified by when an individual reaches a point of emotional investment in a social group so strong, that it inhibits the individual’s ability to think in the sense that we understand the concept. Instead, their cognitive resources are hijacked to support the group paradigm, regardless of how absurd it may be.

Having read it, it all may seem fairly obvious (it does to me, now having written it). Yet, this explanation indicates that the modern approach towards pseudoscience is dangerously flawed. While the debunking, argumentative approach may function to immunize those not afflicted, it does nothing to correct pseudoscience in the afflicted and could conceivably aggravate the condition. Accordingly, recovery rates for pseudoscience tend to be very low. We are, essentially, trying to treat the symptoms of pseudoscience, and in doing so we’re missing the disease.

This post is turning, frankly, very large, so I’m splitting it in two. The second half will go into depth for my proposed treatment method for pseudoscience.

*- For further reading, check out these articles (I used them as a refresher before writing this article):

http://www.stardestroyer.net/Empire/Science/Pseudoscience.html (Yes, it’s a Star Wars website. Yes, the article is good)

http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2009/09/science-non-sci.html

http://initforthegold.blogspot.com/2007/09/pseudoscience-symptoms.html

Thinking About Thinking: Your Inner Avatar and You.

November 6, 2009

I don’t think the Wikipedia definition of “Avatar” does the concept justice.

When you enter a virtual space – such as a video game, or online community, you do so through a kind of logical entity which maps your actions into the designated space (for instance, you hit a button, your guy fires his rocket launcher) and which in turn maps the virtual actions in that space and presents them back to you (for instance, if your character dies, your screen might turn all red and say ‘You are dead’).

In that sense, an avatar isn’t just a representation of you, but a medium for you, allowing you to interact in other, artificial worlds. An avatar is used to make you – your identity, your thoughts and actions – extend beyond the physical world and into the logical one.

In that sense, the avatar is not just a concept in computers. It’s a strong aspect of people’s everyday lives.

Whenever you construct yourself in any artificial or imaginary space, and then use that extension of yourself to interact in that space, you’re making use of your avatar. A good example might be the fictional character type of the “Mary Sue” – an authorial self-insertion into a story for wish fulfillment purposes. Here, the avatar exists in a world created, in part or in whole, by the avatar’s designer.

And yet even that, I think, only represents a small fraction of our everyday avatar usage. I think, rather, that the ultimate origin of the concept of the avatar is our own imaginations.

Imagining ourselves in a different situation, to envision how we would act, or how we should or would like to act, is the most fundamental and vivid use of the concept of the avatar – our inner avatar, if you will.

Which all finally leads me to the point of this – thoughts on how to be better aware of that inner avatar and how to better use it.

Know when to be realistic versus being idealistic: It may be fun to imagine yourself effortlessly accomplishing everything in front of you, you don’t necessarily benefit from that mental exercise.

Framing a challenge for your avatar in detail, as the challenge you expect it to be, can provide intellectual or behavioral insight. It can show you how to behave, or it can show you what information you may be missing about the challenge.

But don’t think that it’s never beneficial to use your avatar in a powerfully emotional matter, even if the scenario you envision isn’t very likely. Instead, the insights you gain from such an exercise are emotional ones. For instance, you can use your avatar in this way to bolster yourself against your fears and anxieties, or to energize yourself to take action on behalf of someone else.

Understand when you want to use your inner avatar for immersion or interaction with a fictional world: This is a choice similar to the above realistic/idealistic choice, but tweaked a bit for the relevant context.

If you don’t do this already, don’t be afraid to place your avatar into fictional worlds you’re experiencing – movies or TV shows, or books, or comics, or anything – if there is a fictional story, you can imagine yourself interacting with it, to your ultimate enrichment.

Using your avatar for immersion falls under the ‘mary sue’ form of self-idealization that I mentioned earlier in the article. It increases your emotional involvement in a fictional environment, and thus increases the energy your brain spends drawing potentially useful information from that environment.

Using your avatar for interaction, however, is more like constructing a video game in your head and then operating your inner avatar as a character in that game, obeying the internal rules of the universe. By doing so, you increase your intellectual understanding of that fictional environment and its’ rules, allowing you to better explore any themes the author might have written into the work.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the subject. Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go imagine I’m an ancient Greek hero now.

Thinking About Thinking: Start Thinking About What You’re Thinking!

October 24, 2009

I would suggest a new concept today. Well, kind of. Kind of an addition to an old idea, too.

Imagine what happens when you say something to someone else. If they’re paying attention, they remember what you said, and those words and ideas are, in a sense, absorbed into them. After that, all their actions after that, everything they do and say, is influenced, to some degree (however potentially incredibly small) by what they heard. And everything they say to other people becomes part of them, not only propagating their own ideas, but the influence your ideas had upon their ideas.

Thusly, everything you do and say can potentially, over time, influence any and every other person in the human species, to some degree. Ideas don’t just get propagated consciously, but eventually become subliminated to some degree in the behavior of many more individuals, perhaps to emerge without prompting, or even without the understanding of the person taking the action.

This produces a massively intricate system of human thoughts and behaviors, kind of like a cognitive ecosystem. Unlike most ecosystems, however, this one is entirely artificial, created by people, for people. Yet, in many ways, it behaves similarly.

A natural ecosystem is a robust thing, able to absorb and adapt to radical changes, though individual parts of the ecosystem may disintegrate. The components of ecosystems, however, grow more delicate the more complex your ecosystem gets. And ecosystems tend to be changed slowly, but respond to sufficient change quickly – changes will build up towards a critical mass which will start a chain reaction that, when the criteria are met, will flash through the ecosystem.

Our mental ecosystem behaves similarly in all these ways, right down to the fascinating similarities involving punctuated equilibrium phenomena. And this is an important part, as it implies that for something really big to happen in our society, it has to sufficiently suffuse itself among us, a process that basically requires us to talk with each other about it a lot, until eventually, one day, when we try to talk about it, we find that we all already agree with each other – and from there, we do something about it, all at once.

So, what does all this mean, you ask. It means that, if our minds, our culture, is like an ecosystem, then we desperately need some way to control pollution. And that control has to come from us as individuals.

It means that you should think about every word you say.

And to do that, it means you need to understand every word you say. If you’re about to say something, you need to ask yourself, “Do I know this is true, or is it just something I heard but never thought about? How do I know it’s true? What does it mean if it’s true?”

If you don’t know something is true, then don’t say it – or at least, make clear that you don’t know if it’s true. Always be able to answer the question, “But how do you know that?”, and always be willing to ask it to others.

The same applies to everything you do, too. “What’s the reason I do this? Do I know it’s a good reason? How do I know it’s a good reason?”

If you don’t have a good reason to do something, then don’t do it – or at least, do it with the understanding that you might not be doing the right thing. Always be able to answer the question, “Why do you act like that?” and always be willing to ask it to others.

It also means that we might not see the impact of what we’re doing – at least, not immediately. But thoughts and actions build up inertia, until eventually they burst, all of a sudden, into very real and very visible effects.