Thursday, November 22, 2018

Holding Parts of Ideas Separate

When I don't have enough downloaded podcasts and don't want to run down my device's battery I turn on the radio in the truck.  It doesn't work very well to begin with, which elevates my frustration level right out of the parking lot. But that's not why I turn it off within a minute nearly every time. It's the callers on sports radio - and the hosts aren't much better.  This is why I switched to podcasts in the first place, after my son convinced me that all the talent had gone there, leaving only the less-capable behind for the radio. (Yes I could listen to Howie Carr, who comes in clearly enough, but even when I agree with him he gets me boiling.)

Sometimes I will get lucky enough that the caller will be so spectacularly stupid that it's worth cringing through in order to keep the story, such as the guy who thought it would be helpful for the New England Patriots to improve their line play by having the offensive linemen play defense for one week, and vice versa. It would help the to understand what their opponents were trying to do, you see. Or the guy who reasoned that because baseball is a superstitious game, his ideas of superstitions to try would work, as if the sport were some separate world where the ordinary rules of cause and effect were suspended.  WP Kinsella (Field of Dreams, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and others) might agree, at least for artistic purposes, but I think we can safely put that aside.

Yesterday's caller suggested that the Celtics' problem was that they no longer had veteran players like Shane Larkin and Amir Johnson to show the younger players how to prepare and behave. This is an idea that actually does make sense for some teams and some circumstances, but is ridiculous in this case. First, they have Al Horford, who is perhaps the one player in the whole league you might pick for that task.  Second, Shane Larkin and Amir Johnson...oh, never mind.  It's not worth even looking for more reasons.

I wondered what it is that prevents people from looking at their own ideas objectively. It seems straightforward and automatic to me to be holding my idea separate in my head after I've developed it, interrogating it to see if it can defend itself.  Is there a counterexample that everyone who knows anything is going to immediately think of? If I am going to make a generalisation about presidents, does it emphatically not fit Obama? Either of the Bushes?  George Washington? Let's hold the idea aloft in the brain and plug various presidents into it. Is this a theory that used to be popular but got exploded twenty years ago after the Great Hamster Massacre of '98? How hard is this to do just a little?

It suddenly occurred to me that something similar happens when doing math in your head.  You calculate something and put it aside into some little compartment for immediate retrieval. Seventeen months. Hold that. Everyone has limits of how many things they can do that with, and how complicated each thing can be. Being able to do lots of it allows you to think about more complicated things.  It is an indicator of intelligence. Which reminded me that I learned years ago that some people cannot do this, not at all.  Interestingly, some of them are quite intelligent, they just don't think that way. Those people, though intelligent, also don't evaluate their own ideas very well.  They just have them.  They can follow a chain of what could happen, like a pachinko ball dropping to the bottom, but can't freeze it and back it up in their heads to imagine the pachinko ball dropping somewhere else.  They can do it if cued, mentally starting from the top again, but they can't do both things at once.  They are linear. Uncle Fred really liked The Nutcracker. We could get him tickets to the other ballet that's coming in February.  Uncle Fred only liked The Nutcracker because his daughter was in it. He liked the costumes, too.  Neither of those is true of "Swan Lake" in February. Oh, that's right.

I have heard it described as a RAM vs ROM phenomenon, but I don't think we talk like that anymore.


Texan99 said...

You know what else people can't do? Separate a chain of events and consider them one at a time, with separate contingencies, like a decision tree. I just had a long and confusing conversation with a broker who was going to need one kind of document or authorization for one step of a securities transfer (change the title from the deceased owner to the heir) and another completely unrelated kind of document or authorization for the next step (transfer the securities from the broker to the heir, or possibly liquidate the securities and send the cash proceeds to the heir by mailed check or wire transfer). It was almost impossible to talk him through the separate steps. He kept insisting that the actions needed for one wouldn't substitute for the actions needed for the other. He couldn't imagine himself as a future guy who had completed step one and was now considering choices for several different ways of accomplishing step two.

Ditto the jury voir dire process. A surprising fraction of the potential jurors cannot distinguish between how they feel about a terrible crime, and the issue of whether they can be fair about deciding whether this particular defendant is the guy that did the terrible crime. Not just that they can't avoid the inevitable irrational bleed-over of feelings, but they can't even grasp what distinction they are being asked to consider: that making a judgment about how bad a crime is is completely different from making a judgment about whether this guy, who may be a good or bad guy, did that obviously bad crime. "But being fair to this guy is the same as condoning the bad crime! I don't know if I can do that!" It's as if they thought the trial was to determine whether whatever the guy was accused of was bad enough to warrant a conviction, not whether the guy is simply the wrong guy and somebody else did the crime. I'm not confident people really understand that a criminal allegation is just a theory, something that we're now engaged in testing for truth. It makes you realize how important is the principle of "innocent until proven guilty."

Or the inability too reason by analogy. Suppose you were a bird flying successfully with two wings. Suddenly you lose one wing. Can you fly half as well, or not at all? "But," he objects, "I'm not a bird. I don't have even one wing, let alone two." I put all these reasoning processes in the category of thought experiment. I'm not sure that many people can do them.

Grim said...

Both of you raise good examples of things indicative of degrees of intelligence. However, this kind of intelligence and abstract reasoning can itself lead you astray!

My favorite example of this comes from Aristotle’s Physics. In examine whether form or matter is primary, he cites an argument that if you were to plant a wooden bed, what might grow is more wood but not more beds.

(Of course, Tex’s non-analogical thinker would rightly object, nothing would grow: the wooden bed would just rot. It remains beyond me to decide if there is nevertheless a clever argument here, or if a predilection for analogy is fooling me into not just laughing to see such an intelligent man arguing so.)

David Foster said...

Somewhat related, I've observed that some people difficulty imagining that something they believe will turn out to be WRONG. Not talking about politics, religion, or philosophy, just practical stuff: "I know this stock will go up, or I wouldn't have bought it." "I know this employee is going to be great". They can admit that they have gotten things wrong in the past, but this time, they're right...and hence aren't interested in thinking about contingency plans.