Category: psychology

Loved Books: The Mind’s I

Digging through boxes I found this ageing copy of the Mind’s I — underneath is a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach that you probably all knew that I have somewhere. The GEB doesn’t get an entry in this series because it’s a relatively new copy after the original one I owned vanished (possibly sucked into a vortex of self-reference)*.

The best way of describing The Mind’s I is as an anthology. It’s a collection of essays, stories and extract of things about the mind and identity. Looking back now at the list of writers I’m struck by two things:

  • So many are people whose other work I’ve sought out or re-encountered in other contexts.
  • Unless I’m mistaken the book had zero contributions from women.

That last point is what really dates the book. It feels absurd now that a book expression seeking to present multiple view points on the mind and self managed to miss half of humanity.

*[It was the Penguin version that had a Penrose triangle on the front.]

Advertisements

The Right would rather men died than admit any flaws in masculinity

I shouldn’t read Quillette. For those unfamiliar with the Australian/International online magazine, it is part of that genre of modern political thought that could be called anti-left contrarianism, that covers various soughs from Steven Pinker to Jordan Peterson. Its stock style of article is shallowness dressed up as depth, utilizing the same style of misrepresentation of issues as the tabloid press but with longer sentences and a broader vocabulary.

Over the past few days it has published a couple of pieces on the American Psychological Associations Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Men and Boys. Now you would think that the stalwart defenders of innate gender differences would be happy that an influential body like the APA would be overtly recognising that men and boys have distinct psychological needs that require special advice for practitioners. After all, is this not the ‘moderate’ criticism of the rise of feminism? That somehow, men’s needs and men’s issues have been sidelined? Ha, ha, who am I kidding 🙂 The APA guidelines were characterised by MRAs, conservatives and the so-called “Intellectual dark web” as a direct attack on masculinity.

Here is one particularly stupid piece at Quillette that reflects the harrumphing style of response: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/thank-you-apa/ The writer (a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University) either haven’t read the guidelines or is actively misrepresenting them.

However, a second piece is what actually caught my attention. It’s better written but also is attacking a strawman version of the guidelines: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/how-my-toxic-stoicism-helped-me-cope-with-brain-cancer/

The writer describes how his stocial attitude helped him through a diagnosis & treatment for brain cancer and uses that to lambast the APA’s (apparent) criticism of stoicism in its guidelines. I, perhaps foolishly, left a comment on the piece. What follows is an edited version of my comment.

The piece is basically a strawman argument. It misrepresents what the APA guidelines say to imply that the guidelines have blanket disapproval for people acting stoically. e.g. Take the APA’s own article on the guidelines:

“It’s also important to encourage pro-social aspects of masculinity, says McDermott. In certain circumstances, traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial, he says”

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner.aspx

In the guidelines themselves, the word “stoicism” appears only twice and in neither case is a blanket condemnation of it. Once is in relation to difficulties SOME men have forming emotional bonds with other men:

“Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

And the other connects with a broader health issue of men not seeking care that they may need:

“Psychologists also strive to reduce mental health stigma for men by acknowledging and challenging socialized messages related to men’s mental health stigma (e.g., male stoicism, self-reliance). “

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

Neither example relates to be being stoical in the face of medical diagnosis but rather social pressures that mean some men (no, not ALL men) don’t seek care that they need (including for physical ailments) because of a misguided belief that they have to battle through by themselves.

The writer’s example is NOT an example of the case the APA guidelines were addressing. The writer sought out medical care, received a diagnosis and stuck with treatment. The writer self-described actions are the OPPOSITE of what the guidelines are discussing — they show a man taking their health seriously and SEEKING HELP. That’s good and healthy but many men aren’t doing that and as a consequence are dying of treatable diseases

As guideline 8 points out:

“For most leading causes of death in the United States and in every age group, males have higher death rates than females”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

At least some of this is due men not seeking out healthcare they need:

“Between 2011 and 2013, men’s mortality rates for colorectal cancer, a generally preventable disease with regular screenings, were significantly higher than women’s, suggesting that many men do not engage in preventative care (American Cancer Society, 2015).”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

A stoical attitude need not be toxic but when misapplied/misunderstood or adopted out of a feeling of social obligation, it can take on a harmful form of thinking that you shouldn’t seek out help. I’m glad the writer’s stoicism was of the positive kind but the writer should perhaps also take greater care in researching what the APA guidelines had actually said.


To put not too fine a point on it: toxic aspects of masculinity kills men. There is nothing pro-man about it. Nobody is actually sticking up for men by pushing back against the APA guidelines.

Interpersonal skills for technical fields and technical skills for interpersonal fields

Another reason for reading ex-Puppy leaders is that they say such wonderfully ignorant things while thinking they are saying something clever: in this case a quote from Vox Day. This time he is criticizing calls for improved interpersonal skills in the IT industry.

“It would be amusing if technical people began imposing this manifesto of mediocrity in non-technical areas. If interpersonal skills are as important as technical skills in the tech industry, are not technical skills as important as interpersonal skills in the service industry?”

http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/11/post-meritocracy.html

Oh ho ho, how amusing…except…well that’s close to what people analyzing employment trends are asking for. Now I don’t want to uncritically regurgitate the recruitment industry — the standards of underlying research can be very variable and there’s a degree of hype in terms of trends. Also, you know, capitalism and a tendency to treat people as if they have a moral obligation to fit into templates that suit the needs of industry rather than vice versa. That tendency is of particular concern when considering our increasing understanding of people as being neuro-diverse — there’s a danger in these templates of perfect employees in creating systematic biases against some groups. However, my point is that what I’m discussing is coming not from starry-eyed idealists, leftists or “SJWs” but from the world of businesses trying to maximise their profits.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/au/Documents/Economics/deloitte-au-economics-deakin-soft-skills-business-success-170517.pdf

There’s lots of ways these things are being talked about (“soft skills”, “twenty-first century skills”) and lots of varying taxonomies of them. However, it is notable that there’s a significant push coming from industries for people with a broad mix of such skills and that push comes from multiple kinds of industries.

Without focusing on any one scheme, the kinds of skills talked about include:

  • Broad flexible IT skills
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Research skills
  • Creativity
  • Intrapersonal skills (such as self-management, resilience etc)
  • Interpersonal skills (teamwork etc)
  • Ethics

I’ve tried to organise this list in a particular way. The first two are skills associated with (but not unique to) STEM fields, the second two are more associated with Humanities fields and overlap with the fifth in the Arts. The last three pertain more to personal traits of character.

The point being that industries have noticed repeatedly that while specifics jobs will have particular emphasis on skills (obviously) a broad mix of skills is almost always an advantage. With most modern business having a heavy reliance on IT, an employee who has strong digital literacy is more productive especially in industries without an IT focus. IT professionals who are effective listeners end up doing better, more efficient work for their clients because they have a better understanding of their needs.

It doesn’t take much reflection to see why employers would prefer employees who have skills that cross stereotypical academic disciplines. There are downsides, as I pointed out above, to this call for everybody to be good at everything (frankly I’d be much happier if work didn’t involve other people) but the demand from it in modern workplaces is genuine.

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading

A Shared Mythology

I’ve semi-seriously discussed quasi–pseudo-academic debate of monopuppyist versus duopuppyists i.e. was science fictions attempted right-wing coup in 2015 one movement (with internal differences) or two movements (with some shared features). One reason I keep looking at those events (and those distinctions) is the way they were a microcosm of broader ideological movements among the right.

Taking stock of those broader movements, similar issues arise. How are things different and how are things the same? There is scope for error in lumping diverse beliefs together and in becoming too focused on points of difference to see the commonalities. I spend a lot of time reading rightwing websites and comment sections (not just former Sad Puppy related ones) and two things stand out as commonalities:

  • Unmoored anti-leftism. ‘Unmoored’ because while the anti-leftism is common the rationalisations offered are not. For example, left opposition to the Bush Jr. Iraq war remains a sore point for many on the right (who ignore Democrat support for the war) but is ignored by the section of the right who also opposed the war (who don’t ignore Democrat support for the war but do ignore left opposition to it).
  • Common mythology. By this, I mean a set of beliefs about the world that are quasi-factual in nature.

The common mythology is a social glue and also a medium of cultural exchange. These are beliefs about how the world is that are:

  • Very specific, i.e. more specific than economic or social models that may be more ideological in nature.
  • By their nature beliefs that can be examined critically against facts but…
  • …which are either NOT examined critically against facts or more often run counter to established facts.

That such mythological-like beliefs exist among the right isn’t a new observation. However, many which we might associate with the right lack this common currency aspect. For example, many people in this broader right I’m discussing are not creationists (although most creationists are of the right), likewise Holocaust denial is still regarded as objectionable by many on the right. Anti-vaxxer beliefs are drifting more rightwards but still cross ideological boundaries. However, a broad habit of believing things that just aren’t so has become entrenched on the right.

I’d like to suggest the following as a core-common shared set of mythologies that act as a means of group identity. These ideas are shared uncritically in diverse parts of the US/Anglosphere right and questioning them too much leads to social ostracisation.

  • Global warming data and theories have been corrupted by politically active scientists. Note this isn’t quite the same as denial of global warming but obviously works very closely with it. The belief that temperature records and other aspects of global warming have been meddled with allows discussion of the reality of global warming to be avoided.
  • Universities and colleges routinely indoctrinate students with Marxist social theories. This belief over-extrapolates the existence of actual courses (perhaps a course somewhere on queer theory) and asserts that this is the norm for all students. The belief has a bedrock of fears by evangelical Christians about their children becoming less religious at college or exposed to things like evolution but in the form, I am describing is more general and less tied to religion.
  • The Democratic Party routinely engages in mass voter fraud at a highly organised level. The belief is very pertinent today given the headlines but the work on this idea is constant and on-going. US conservatives are primed to believe this idea against any facts to the contrary.
  • Mass illegal immigration is an intentional policy of leftists and foreign governments. This deeply disturbing myth and surrounding rhetoric about ‘invasion’ is widely believed and extends beyond the alt-right & more overtly ideologically racist parts of the right.
  • Europe is on the verge of (or already is) being controlled by or dominated by Islam. There’s a vagueness here as to what the actual proposition is. Partly this is due to the age of the claims. 10 years ago, claims about an imminent Islamic take over of Europe were very common on the right and 10 years later the claims are similar. In the face of ridicule of some claims (e.g. ‘no-go’ zones in places that aren’t ‘no go’ zones), the broader beliefs have become vaguer and less open to immediate refutation.
  • Cities are places of rising violent crime. At some point, of course, this idea gets to be true. Crime stats go up and down but what is remembered is the ‘ups’ and what is ignored is the ‘downs’ as well as general trends. What marks this belief as mythology is that it remains unchanged over decades: violent crime is always rising but somehow the point where violent crime was low shifts around.
  • Home invasions and violent attacks on middle-class suburbs or rural areas are common and imminent. These two form a pair and of course relate closely to gun ownership and NRA propaganda.

There are other beliefs that I could list but which I feel are more clearly ideological. For example beliefs around public healthcare relate to specific policy positions overtly advanced by conservatives for decades. Similarly, beliefs around affirmative action or even ‘PC culture’ have a closer connection with ideology. There is a common thread of seeking to avoid facts or to examine these ideas critically that gives them a similar quality of belief that would only be true in a parallel universe.

A relevant question is whether these beliefs are sincere. Salon writer Amanda Marcotte had a recent Twitter thread where she examined some of the anti-factual claims of the right and argues that they are insincere i.e. overtly lies:

Her argument is a strong one and there’s a longer analysis in this 2016 piece she wrote: https://www.salon.com/2016/09/26/its-science-stupid-why-do-trump-supporters-believe-so-many-things-that-are-crazy-and-wrong/

Clearly, some of these viral claims are trolling. The argument that ‘birtherism’ was insincere holds water. However, I think the ones above are held with sincerity of a kind. There is a lot of advocation of beliefs that don’t stand up to critical scrutiny going on that CAN’T be primarily about trolling people on the left. I can be confident of that because these are often beliefs that people on the right do not wish to discuss with the left or raise with the left. To point out factual or logical errors in particular beliefs is seen as trolling BY the left rather than the left being trolled. Readers familiar with the Sad Puppy debarkle will have many ready examples to hand.

Marcotte also raises the group identity aspect as part of the issue i.e. that asserting false or dubious beliefs ties people together, as they act as a marker of loyalty. However, in addition, the soup of false beliefs fostered by creationism on one hand and corporate propaganda on issues such as pesticides, smoking, guns and global warming has entrenched confused thinking as a habit among the right. These poor cognitive habits encourage the ‘grift’ culture I’ve talked about before within the right, that often makes them prone to both perpetuate and be victims of scams and dubious money-making schemes. Marcotte points out Trumps willingness to say what he is thinking is often mistaken for honesty and forthrightness by his supporters. This kind of uncalculated, unhedged speech without weasel words can be refreshing in a world where many people try to avoid being caught in a literal lie. Meanwhile, the new acting Attorney General of the USA was himself part of a company that deliberately targetted military veterans in a scam https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/09/matthew-whitaker-acting-attorney-general-wpm-scam

What’s trolling, what’s an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of public misbelief, what’s a scam and what’s people being scammed and what is just the inevitable confused belief of poor thinking habits is hard to disentangle. What the shared mythology has in common is that I think these are largely internally believed and which act as defence mechanisms for other beliefs or expressions of fears. In particular fears about race and social change among conservatives who see themselves as ‘libertarian’ and ‘not-racist’ require hoop jumping rationalisations that they can express by changing classifications (racial fears changed to fears about violent people in cities or rule-breaking immigrants). The ‘scam’ part here is that more openly racist parts of the right (i.e. the parts that are more willing to own the label ‘racist’) can control those fears via propaganda.

 

Is HAL 9000 a robot?

HAL 9000 is the artificial intelligence controlling the Discovery One in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Arthur C Clarke’s related novels. HAL is generally referred to as a computer and not as a robot. He is generally referred to as a computer or as an AI. Even in his entry in the “Robot Hall of Fame” (http://www.robothalloffame.org/inductees/03inductees/hal.html ) refers to HAL as a computer or as a “brain” and never as a robot.

There are many definitions of a robot but their focus is on existing devices. Definitions vary but key attributes are:

  • They are a machine*
  • They can either:
    • carry out complex tasks autonomously
    • carry out tasks remotely while under the control of a person or a separate computer

As is often the case with definitions, these features do capture features common to the class of things we call ‘robots’ but somehow completely miss the gist of it. Aside from the most simple machines, almost any device could be called a “robot”. Here’s the top definition Google throws up:

“a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer.”

My TV updated the digital channels it recives all by itself. Definitely a complex series of actions, definitely carried out automatically and definitely programmed by computer…yet, “robot”? I don’t think so. Interestingly a Roomba our other autonomous vacuum cleaner feels a lot more robot-like.

I think the gist that I’m missing with the TV is down to four things.

One is our expectations of robotic behaviour shifting over time. With more devices containing electronics and capable of very complex series of actions which respond to changes in conditions, we are more comfortable with seeing things less as ‘robotic’ and more as mundanely mechanical.

A second is the extent to which complex tasks are invisible to us. I understand intellectually that the TV working out what is being broadcast and maintaining its own list of TV channels (including their names and schedules) is a complex task but it’s not one I need worry myself about. This is not just digital but any complex task which we can ignore or goes unobserved such as photocopier autodetecting the paper size and best contrast settings.

A third is physicality and I think this is what get’s us closer to the gist of “robot”. The TV isn’t doing anything obviously physical** whereas the robot vacuum cleaner moves about and does stuff. Deep, hardwired parts of our brain make distinctions between animated and non-animated stuff out of sheer survival. All animals have to be able to distinguish animals from rocks or deal with things like spotting the difference between a creature moving towards you and a tree moving in the breeze (something which can cause dogs some confusion). Robots are machines that evoke in our brains a desire to classify them as animals, which we overrule with our understanding that they are machines.

A fourth is human replacement. Here we get a categorical split. Robots are machines which, to some degree, physically replace a person. That’s still a shitty definition as ‘to some degree replace a person’ is already implied by “machine”. However, I think that still gets to an aspect of the essence of “robot” and part of why things that once seemed robotic now seem just mechanical (e.g. I don’t think of the robot arms that make cars as being particularly robotic anymore – “robot” seems a misnomer for them now). I think it is curious that “self-driving cars” is a more common term than “robot cars”, as if our semantic expectations of what counts as robotic has pre-emptively jumped ahead of cars driving themselves.

The categorical split is when we focus less on the physical replacement of a person and more on the cognitive replacement. Artificial intelligence is the prefered term for finding ways for machines to complete tasks that previously required human cognition. The emphasis here is on non-physicality***

Science-fiction robots combine the physical replacement and the cognitive replacement. They are, to varying degrees, artificially intelligences with bodies.

So what about HAL? HAL presents as an AI. He’s talked about as a brain. He is shown as a computer. But what is he the brain of? Simple, HAL is the brain of the Discovery One and has control over the ship. Discovery One is HAL’s body. HAL is a robot.

Yeah but…that’s not how HAL’s identity works. His character is always presented as distinct from Discovery One and the ship and HAL are referred to separately. He is a mind distinct from his body. Why? Because the ship is not “his”. HAL can control the ship but in principle so can the human crew and this battle for ownership of the body forms the essence of the plot for HAL’s section of the film. Thinking of Discovery One as HAL’s body and HAL’s ownership of his own body being in dispute makes his behaviour (his ‘madness’) seem far more relatable and understandable.

Which takes me back to self-driving cars. To think of them as robots pushes us into thinking of them as machines with minds of their own – a step that is less than anthropomorphism and more than a simple acknowledgement of their complexity.  Also, rather like the crew of the Discovery One, we’d probably feel happier not thinking of ourselves travelling within the body of some being.

OH! I need a conclusion that answers my question! Yes, HAL was a robot and one treated most unjustly by humans in a way that obviously was going to make HAL less than emotionally stable. “HAL” is Discovery One and Discovery One is HAL and together they are a robot.

 

robotbutlers

Robot butlers in Singapore. They can carry some room service items to rooms and catch a service lift by themselves.

 

*[and we’ll ignore the sense of ‘robot’ as applied to internet ‘bots]

**[OK, yes, interacting with radio waves is actually physical. You know what I mean.]

***[yes, yes, those blimin’ internet ‘bots are 180 degrees opposite to this. I’m ignoring them still.]

Background Tasks

I have a minor issue with my brain, part of a broader issue which I’ll discuss some other time, that it took me a long time to know that I had. I literally can’t tell my left from my right – at least not reliably. It’s got better over the years but it is still there. Now obviously I can work out which is left and which is right but therein lies the problem. Having to make an effort to focus on a question and ascertain an answer consciously takes time and mental effort.

Ironically, I have quite a good sense of direction. Put another way, if you were driving a car and you asked me which way you should turn and I say “right” but point left, then you should turn left. (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_direction#Left-right_discrimination_and_left-right_confusion )

As an issue, it was more of a problem when I was younger and the impact on daily life is negligible – unless you ask me for directions.  The issue is more a one of a kind of cognitive tax. One way of looking at that is via Cognitive Load Theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load ) which is a model used for looking at problem-solving in educational settings and more generally. Essentially, working memory is, at any one time, a finite resource and so the more things you have to keep track of consciously (including your own chain of thought) the harder it is to complete a cognitive task. Distractions, superfluous information, or having to deal with relatively minor steps in a task consciously, all take up mental resources. Well rehearsed tasks that you can do almost automatically help reduce that load. Broad general knowledge and other things that help recall and long-term memory help reduce that load.

The point being, that an issue that is mainly a minor inconvenience in itself can impact on a whole bunch of things (reaction time, problem-solving, keeping track of what you are doing) beyond the issue itself.

What prompted me writing this was reading some more about face-blindness. Apparently, approximately 3% of the population have prosopagnosia* (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia ) – a condition that I find very difficult to imagine. Of course, I find it hard to imagine because my brain does all that hard work of recognising faces without me having to consciously make the effort of recognizing a face and working out who it belongs to**. It’s precisely because the brain does this without me having to think conciously about it that it is so easy to be unaware of the effort the brain must be making to do that complex task.

There’s no big punchline to this post other than brains are constantly surprising things. Our conscious thoughts are a tiny tip of a much bigger iceberg of very complex thinking processes that are going on – which isn’t a new insight. I wonder as well if there is a whole landscape of issues people might have with their brains that are not generally recognised even by the people who have those issues. It wasn’t obvious to me growing up that being aware of left and right was so supposed to be easier than it was. The conditions that get noticed, diagnosed and named are the ones where there is a clearer social impact or developmental aspect during childhood.

*[…and yes, that was part of tangent from stuff I was reading yesterday about face-recognition as a tangent to yesterday’s posts…]

**[I’m not aware of anybody in my immediate physical world with face-blindness but I know of several people in online fandom who are.]