The great value of science is in its capacity to prove counter-intuitive concepts. But like any pearl of great price, such events are rare and hard to find. Far more often we see a scientific sheen being put over common sand, forming the epistemological equivalent of costume jewelry.
Exhibit A is Matthew Hutson’s article in the New York Times “Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts.”
Hutson, author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking,” is one of those thinkers who delights in using all the formidable capacities gained by achieving a B.S. in cognitive neuroscience (and an M.S. in science writing) to show us how little we know ourselves.
“We like to believe that the principled side of (morality) is rooted in deep, reasoned conviction,” he writes in the Times. “But a growing wealth of research shows that those values often prove to be finicky, inconsistent intuitions, swayed by ethically irrelevant factors. What you say now you might disagree with in five minutes.”
A “growing wealth of research” shows that our ethical intuitions can be shaped by subjective factors? Wow, that would be shocking … except that Aristotle already covered it.
The whole point of the Nicomachean Ethics is that ethical behavior is formed by and through subjective states of mind, rather than an abstract knowledge of “the good.” Aristotle writes about how young people “are in a condition like permanent intoxication, because youth is sweet and they are growing,” and that “With regard to excellence, it is not enough to know, but we must try to have and use it.” The idea that someone’s judgement was susceptible to how hungry they were, or the mood they were in, was a given. Continue reading If Aristotle covered it, it’s not news
Gallup recently conducted a poll ranking the American states by how happy they are. Don’t ask any questions about methodology or legitimacy: I’m not even going there. Let’s just all be happy for the people of Kansas, who ranked higher than California.
Here’s what I want to point out.
SF Weekly reported on this survey, and their post concluded with this paragraph:
So why does any of this matter? Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport told 24/7 Wall St.why states should try to foster more joy: “Well-being is important because of the hypothesis that it leads to good outcomes,” he said. “If your citizens have high well-being, they’re more likely to be better citizens and engage in better behaviors and make things better all the way around. It’s a positive goal for those that look at what we ought to emphasize in society.”
Wait … We’re justifying HAPPINESS because “of the hypothesis that it leads to good outcomes”?
The idea is that I should be happy because it might lead somewhere good? Is that it? I should follow this happiness thing and see if it pays off down the road? And if it doesn’t, I’ll try misery out because that might be the shortcut to enhanced results? That’s where you’re going with this?
To think people don’t trust polls.
“Loneliness among the overeducated is the saddest thing in the world.”
Ariel Cruz has insisted that I keep his battered copy of “Ratner’s Star,” by Don DeLillo. I’m refraining from judgment so far, but page 114 contains that extraordinary sentiment, right at the top.
That, of course, may be the Rosetta Stone of the whole book, but it also stands on its own – a poem in just over 20 syllables. It requires no tome to explain: like a mathematical proof it summons its own examples readily.
I once made a similar idea the theme of an as yet unpublished fairy tale. In “Mr. Fox’s Apprentice,” my take on the fairy tale archetype of Bluebeard’s Castle, the magical destroyer of women tells his third wife: “You married me because you could not stand to spend another day alone with wisdom.”
When her inevitable destruction comes, he tells her “It is always the wisest who succumb the soonest.”
Wisdom and loneliness are independent actors. They bear no relationship to each other. Increasing one will win or lose you nothing of the other. Continue reading Loneliness, Wisdom, and Absolute Truth have a tea party
It happens occasionally.
In an email to a friend, recently, I surprised myself by saying:
“For the record: no persona, when visualized, is much like a human being. It’s a particularly interesting irony: the faces we choose to present to the world, when examined closely, don’t look much like people at all.
But it couldn’t be any other way, because personae are exactly what we put up as opposed to simply being human: they are our substitute for putting our selves, our humanity, forward. They are forged, honed, and crafted in a way that would be torturous for any person. They seem artificial when visualized precisely because that’s what they are – just as they “feel” inauthentic to the person putting them forward.”
A mask always looks more like a mask than it does a human being.
Of course, persona is one of those things I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about at an amateur level. Recommended reading includes Irving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society,” Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae,” and … of course … almost anything written by the great Philip Reiff.
From Salon.com’s portrait of Reality TV casting guru Doron Ofir:
That certain something which transforms an unknown nobody into a national celebrity is what we call charisma. This mysterious phenomenon of personal magnetism is usually thought of as defying definition. We can never seem to put our finger on what exactly that force of personality is exactly or where it comes from. But Doron’s ability to find star after star suggests that charisma isn’t the enigma we once assumed it to be.
Right – because if there’s one truly mysterious quality about Charisma, it’s that you never know it when you see it. If only there were some way to tell who the charismatic people are!
The idea that you need a formula to tell who’s charismatic is the stuff that great sketch comedy is made of. But writer Rupert Russell goes on in very serious tones to explain that Ofir has discovered a profound secret of human nature that opens charisma like a high school locker: “totemism.” Continue reading The “Charisma Code” has not been cracked by sloppy thinking
In his book “The Signal and the Noise,” poll-guru Nate Silver writes:
“Diseases and other medical conditions can also have this self-fulfilling property. When medical contiditons are widely discussed in the media, people are more likely to identify their symptoms, and doctors are more likely to diagose (or misdiagnose) them. The best-known case of this in recent years is autism. If you compare the number of children who are diagnosed as ausistic to the frequency with which the term autism has been used in American newspapers, you’ll find that there is an almost perfect one-to-one correspondance.” (p. 217 – 218)
Essentially the more a disease is on people’s minds, the closer reporting of it gets to 100%. Part of this is surely attributable to increased awareness – autism is a real thing – but at what point does hyper-awareness turn into a social manifestation of something else? There were virtually no reports of western style eating disorders in Japan until, in 1994, local Japanese media began quoting out of American diagnostic manuals. Suddenly American style anarexics were appearing everywhere – and still do. Continue reading Medical or Mental?