Friday, January 29, 2010

I am an egotistical lover of beauty who hungers for truth and change

Last week I read Stephen Jay Gould's essay, "The Median is not the Message" and in it the author says,
"Heart and head are focal points of one body, one personality,"
By which the author means that one's hope for oneself must also consider the facts about oneself but, the facts about oneself must be respectful of one's unique nature if hope for oneself is to be had.
It is helpful to understand where you fall in the bell curve and you can't be afraid to find out that you might be far from average.

George Orwell gives advice in "Why I Write" that is specific to writing but, could apply to a broader consideration of self-reflection and self-acceptance he says;

". . . there are four great motives for writing . . . they exist
in different degrees in every writer . . .

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc. etc. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one . . . Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose on the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not be missed . . .
  3. Historical Impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  4. Political Purpose - using the word 'political' in the widest sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that should strive after."
They all make sense to me and they are all hard to admit.
I like to make arguments that express my personal sense of who I am in the world. I feel more hopeful when I do. To sum Orwell, I am an egotistical lover of beauty who hungers for truth and change.

Gould wrote his essay when he was diagnosed in 1982 with abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and very deadly form of cancer, which technically speaking offered him, a "median mortality of eight months" to live. He took the time to understand who he was relative to the average and lived for 12 years.

His quote above is the resolution of the conflict between "what is" versus "what's possible" and, he postulates, a death sentence is only accurate if a person fails to appreciate, with head and heart, the unique variations s/he carries within. He concludes with sage advice,
"It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die - and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy - and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light."
Makes sense to me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Learning a new fallacy

My favorite blog is "Debunking Christianity" it has unseated the MLive MSU Football Forum as my Internet diversion of choice. I like it because it has introduced me to the idea of fallacies and how they operate. Watching atheist skeptics and Christian apologists debate God's reality has helped me realize how faulty my reasoning skills are.

An example of this is my new appreciation for the fallacy of equivocation. I appreciate this fallacy because I love words and their precise use. The fallacy demands one define terms if they are making a challenging argument. I like paradox also so, in the past a phrase such as, "One should be skeptical of a skepticism" would delight me.

I am a skeptic and therefore of course am skeptical of skepticism but that doesn't make me doubt my skepticism because I now understand the importance of fallacy.

You can read why I can say that here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Rounding Influence of Storytelling

Insight is a story. It goes beyond an agreed upon fact and uncovers paradox.

There really isn’t any formula for insight because it depends on the ability to see beyond the data and consider context.

For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been pursuing insight, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. The archive is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director, George Vaillant.

An article from last June’s Atlantic entitled “What Makes us Happy” focused on this study.

Amidst the data collected, the enduring lessons of the men studied were paradoxical and the scientific output needed, “the rounding influence of story-telling."

Insight is a story. How something is told affects its meaning. What to tell?

The Mendacity of Measurability

Albert Einstein once observed, "Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.” This is a tricky aphorism to comprehend because on the surface it would seem to be a celebration of intuition over empiricism.

That observation would deny history however because the good physicist demanded his “General Relativity” be corroborated by a total eclipse before it could be Nobel-worthy.

The insight is useful though if we consider that it offers clarity around the potential for equivocation when we automatically assume quantification as thought. Ideation can be compromised when we seek the right answer in the face of complexity rather than being comfortable accepting complexity itself. A prior formula can mistake the nature of variables and deliver an outcome that fails to recognize the functional relationship of those variables.

The author Mark Slouka exposes the fallacy of quantification further in his essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School” when he discusses the current trend in scholastics towards standardized testing. He paraphrases David Brooks on the importance of data capture skills and education;

all we need to do is make a modest in- vestment in ‘delayed gratification skills.’ Young people who can delay gratification can master the sort of self-control that leads to success; they can sit through sometimes boring classes and perform rote tasks. As a result, they tend to get higher SAT scores, gain acceptance to better colleges, and have, on average, better adult outcomes.”

But Mr. Slouka exposes the fallacy of this thinking by observing,

“There’s something almost sublime about this level of foolishness. By giving his argument a measured, mathematical air (the students only achieve better adult out- comes ‘on average’), Brooks hopes that we will overlook both the fact that his constant (success) is a variable and that his terms are ‘way unequal’, as the kids might say. One is reminded of the scene in the movie ‘Proof’ in which the mathematician played by Anthony Hopkins, sliding into madness, begins a proof with ‘Let X equal the cold.’ Let higher SAT scores equal better adult outcomes.”

Foolish arguments can seem logical as long as they are internally consistent but what reasoned truth demands is a credible premise. We live in a world swamped by data. We engage the fallacy of numbers but fail to recognize the premise behind the numbers we believe author reality. In the face of the data over-load there is an opportunity to embrace good old critical thinking. We have an opportunity to sharpen our thinking by challenging the logic of agreed upon premises. And we are living in a very complex time when logic is necessary but critically assessing the premise driving that logic is imperative.

When we are faced with a challenge that chases a specific outcome are we allowing our desire for success to impact our premise in a way where we embrace the appearance of logic as an honest attempt to reconcile complexity? Or are we assessing our options in a way that better understands complexity? Are we looking for what seems to be the right answer or do we consider what is real, albeit messy?

The danger we face is allowing our comfort with logic to leave us vulnerable to unquestioned premises because to question an agreed upon premise may seem inefficient (or, Heaven forbid make us look simple). But by giving an argument a measured, mathematical air we overlook the reasoned truth that the constant we all presume is a necessary variable may not be equal to what is real. Sometimes to avoid the formulaic answer one has to become comfortable with the complexity of the question.