Skeptics & Talking to Strangers

Another of my book pairs is “Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” and “Talking to Strangers,” the latest Malcolm Gladwell book. Of the two, “Skeptic’s” is the better book, but “Talking to Strangers” is maybe more entertaining and will sell more copies. Both contain lots of things that people aware of developments subjects like information flow, persuasion and biases already know, but the books do a service by making these things more easily digestible for a general public.

The scientific method

Skeptics is more wide ranging. It does not have a dominant theme, doesn’t claim to have one, beyond the skeptical method, which is a form of the Western scientific method. Always assume that you do not know everything and work to disconfirm what you think is true. We too often fall victim to confirmation bias. The authors talk a lot about this and other informal logical fallacies.

We live in an uncertain and contingent world, but that does not mean we need to question everything all the time. The authors make a distinction between philosophical skepticism and scientific skepticism.

Scientific v philosophical skepticism

The former is something like Rene Descartes, “cogito ergo sum” – I think therefore I am – you have to derive everything from first principles. As the authors point out, Descartes was living at the very start of the scientific revolution. People commonly believed all sorts of myths and were generally living in error most of the time. Medicine was bloodletting. Chemistry was alchemy. Astronomy was astrology and most lines of true inquiry were forbidden by religion, tradition or generationally developed indifference. In other words, there were few reliable sources. Today we have had science at work for centuries. They have figured out lots of things. Science, of course, continues to develop, but you would be insane to demand a return to first principles for most things. Better to see farther by “standing on the shoulders of giants” who went before.

For all our science, however, people fall for lots of the old superstitions. Some people still believe in ghosts, astrology, alternative medicine, alien encounters and all manner of conspiracy theories. These are not always just harmless story telling. The authors are very tough about this. They think we need to confront these errors all the time. I don’t know about that. You would get pretty tired doing that and your protestations would be unlikely to have the desired outcomes. But I think we have to be vigilant and aware.

Let’s repeat again – scientist agree GMOs are safe

A few places were the errors have serous negative impacts in the triad of truth and consequences – climate change, GMO safety and vaccinations. Scientists are very clear about all three. Climate change is happening with human inputs. GMOs are safe and vaccinations save lives. The interesting thing here is that you get a political division on truth and doubt. People who deny climate change are mostly on the right side of the political spectrum. GMO hysterics tend to be on the left. Anti-vaccination people encompass the cognitively challenged on both ends, but for an unexplained reason attract lots of celebrities, whose physical beauty hides and ugly mind.

Let me talk about the GMOs, since that is the one where scientific opinion most diverges from average man-on-the-street view. Let’s first be clear. Almost everything we eat, or drink is genetically modified. The big ears of corn, large watermelons and fresh carrots do not exist in nature. And the turkeys, cows and chicken we favor would not last a day “out there.” And let’s not even talk about those hairless cats and little dogs that cannot even climb a flight of stairs on their little and barely functioning legs. Pigs would do well if they got out, as evidenced by the fact that they do in real conditions. Most of our crop plants and animals, however, just are not fit enough to survive in the survival of the fittest.

Most scientist think GMOs are safe, at least as safe as plants and animals in general. Most natural and organic plants are full of toxins that the species has been developing over the eons of evolution in a hope to avoid being eaten. We, in turn, have developed ways to tolerate many of them. It is an arms race. In fact, GMOs may be SAFER than organism developed in other ways, since we are reasonably sure of what is in the GMOs. GMOs are heavily regulated. Ordinary plans not.

Misinformed not just ignorant

The public is more misinformed about GMOs than about any other field of science. Worse, the general public is seriously Misinformed not merely uniformed, an important distinction. The public is misinformed because well funding campaigns by various interest groups and professional luddites. More’s the pity, since GMOs can mean LESS not more pesticide and herbicide use. The big and glaring exception to this is round-up ready crops and that is the one anti-science crusaders focus on, with some justification, BTW.

Yes, I take this personally. These science-phobes harm the forest and trees I love.

It leads them and the public to oppose very useful research into oranges that resist “greening,” a disease the is an existential threat to citrus, hemlocks or ash trees that can resist their respective bugs, and my personal favorite American chestnuts that are not killed by the blight. We could be planting those chestnuts today – now – if not for the luddites, but I have written elsewhere about that.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Some of this is related to the “naturalistic fallacy.” Simply stated, it holds that what is natural is good. There is some kind of plan that we can understand. It is often associated in the popular mind with a concept of sin, and a strong nature philosophy can have aspects of the old fire-and-brimstone religion. Whenever you hear someone imply that humanity will be punished for violating nature, you know you have run into this idea big time.

Yes, I love nature and sometimes fall for the naturalistic fallacy. Then I recall that nature does not love me. Many of the thing, even in “my” own forest are trying to kill me or would do under many circumstances. None of the foods we commonly eat are natural. A possible exception are raspberries and blackberries. I find them wild on the farm and they seem pretty much the same as the ones in Harris Teeter.

The great David Hume identified a version of this, assuming what IS is what OUGHT to be, but you can find antecedents. You can take it all the way back to Lucretius “De Rerum Natura.” Things emerge; they are no ordained. It is very appealing to think we live in a basically friendly world if only us humans would let it be what it should. This just is not true and none of you reading this believe it really. Who would let their toddler wander alone in the woods to do as she pleased and eat what she found? BUT we feel we believe it and it affects our thought.

I could go on about “Skeptics,” but maybe you should just read it. It is worth the time.

Talking to Strangers

Malcolm Gladwell is both admirable and annoying. I eagerly read his first book – “Tipping Point.” It was very familiar, however, since what he wrote about influence in his book was much how we practiced public diplomacy. The ideas and techniques were well known among those who worked on such things, but Gladwell stated it better and simpler and kind of made is sound like he made it up himself.
Format of many voices

This book is a different. It is very different in format in that he narrates and then has audio recordings of speeches and statements sprinkled in. It makes it seem more like their own words, because it is, but you can tell that there is significant selection bias.

We cannot tell when people are lying, but most of us think we can
Gladwell’s main theme is that we are too can be fooled when we are talking to strangers because we pick up on non-verbal ques that sometimes are inappropriate. This can be dangerous when we are dealing with cross-cultural encounters and it is disastrous when someone is actually lying or maybe believes something that is objectively false.

Most of us think that face-to-face encounters are better. If we look the person in the eyes, we think we can determine honesty. This just is not true. Some people can lie better than others can tell the truth; others convince themselves something is true when it is not. In both cases, they are very credible and most of us are fooled.

Trust is an advantage to you and society

Much of our credulity comes from a perfectly reasonable prejudice. We like to believe that telling the truth is a default option and most of the time it is, at least reasonably so. The clerk at McDonald’s will usually not try to steal your money, and despite the stereotype most people in the professions are honest. This is not to say they are always right or even always honest, but you are probably better off in life if you give the benefit of the doubt, since you will get ripped off less often if you have the better attitude than you will lose friends and annoy people so much that they don’t want to help you. Nobody likes distrustful people. Surly or nasty are the words that comes to mind.

Talking face-to-face does not work better and sometimes it is worse

Because we want to believe people, and because most of the time people are being reasonably honest, we fall prey to those who are not. It is a reasonable trade. Gladwell doesn’t offer any real alternatives beyond the usual checks. He does say, however, that in cases where people are trying to deceive us, we may be better off NOT talking to them face-to-face. Machines using algorithms can often make better judgements by using just the facts of a case.

I have long believed this about of consular visa appointments. This would also go for things like loan applicants, credit checks etc. Applicants need to meet the vice-consul, who talks to the person for a few minutes, often in a language they have trouble understanding and makes a judgment. The judgement is often good. Okay. But it may be that the judgement is not improved and may be harmed by the face-to-face meeting. We love and trust the contact, however.

The Hitler example makes sense this time

Gladwell goes right to the top with the Hitler example. The British signing a “peace for our time” with Hitler is often consider the biggest single prewar mistake. Historians have parsed that over and over. Gladwell brings the trust perspective. Hitler was very charismatic in person. Chamberlin was just fooled by that. Guys who met Hitler face-to-face tended to know him LESS well than those who just read what he wrote and said. Hitler was very clear in writing his goals. People just did not want to believe what he wrote and people who saw him in person were most beguiled.

Gladwell really cannot stick to a theme. This is mostly a good thing. His tangents and stories are fun and often as enlightening as the main them.
You cannot kill yourself by breathing natural gas

In one of them he talks about suicide, taking the famous Sylvia Plath – “The Bell Jar” as an example. Plath was mentally unstable and talked of suicide a lot, so many people assume that her death by her own hands was inevitable. She carefully sealed up her room, put on some nice clothes and turned on the gas. She was dead not long after, and she left a nice-looking corpse. Would she really have killed herself if that method was unavailable? It was important to her that her suicide be painless and “beautiful”. She did not want to be disfigured or humiliated even in death. Gas was an easy choice.

When she committed suicide, they used town gas in UK, where she was living. Town gas is made from coal. It is impure and full of carbon monoxide, which is what did her in. Gassing oneself was a popular way of suicide for women, probably for reasons similar to Plath’s. A few years after Plath’s unfortunate incident, UK switched over the natural gas. Natural gas is much cleaner. It is mostly pure methane, which will not kill you. That is one reason why it burns with almost no soot or carbon monoxide. Of course, it produces carbon dioxide CO2 as a byproduct of combustion, but CO2 is not toxic. If you are in a room with nothing but CO2, you will suffocate, not because the CO2 is killing you, but from lack of oxygen. However, the room must be sealed tighter than most rooms can be sealed by ordinary people. Had she used natural gas as her method, she would have woken up with a headache, but still be alive.

Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse

I didn’t know this about gas, and I didn’t believe it, so I checked. It is true. Of course, it is still a good idea not to leave the gas on and carbon monoxide is produced by incomplete combustion, so you still need good ventilation in your house. And don’t bring the that charcoal grill inside. The incomplete combustion does create carbon monoxide.

So, what happened to the suicide rate? Presumably, if young women were going to kill themselves anyway, they would find ways to do it, even if messier. Well … no. Suicide rates dropped by about 1/3. W/o the convenience and neatness of gas, lots of people just couldn’t be bothered to kill themselves. It is not always futile to take away options. People calculate costs, even in very serious matters and even when they do not know they are doing it.

This goes for crime too. Contrary to popular myth about super criminals, most criminals are stupid, at least dumber than the average guy. Crime really doesn’t pay for most people and stupid people are less likely to figure that out as readily. They are so stupid, however, that they cannot do some figuring, and when it is harder to do a crime, people do less crime.

We sometimes here people questioning simple expedients like locking doors. “If they really want to get in, they will find a way,” they say, and they are right. But the simple precaution deters lots of people. They just don’t bother being crooks if being a crook is too hard. Criminals are lazy too, or at least lazier than the average guy.

I can recommend both books. They are interesting, informative and entertaining. What more can you want in a book?

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