Friday, May 13, 2005

It's Michael Shermer!

` What's in the mail today? I just got another weekly e-skeptic, as usual written personally by... MICHAEL SHERMER!

` Drop the balloons.

` He always writes a weird story about something or another in his life and/or skepticism, or else something about stuff that needs to be skeptified. This one is a book review of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where he explains why the logic-only Spock, Holmes, and Data have a disadvantage. (That doesn't stop me from appreciating Certain Fictional Vulcans, Men, and Androids of Very Expansive Brains.)

` Wonder how intuition can help? Everyone uses it - especially for little day-to-day things. This is a fun article! I'll walk you along, because my creativity drive is swamped:

He starts out:

` Anyone who does a lot of public speaking knows there are certain questions that inevitably arise from the audience in a Q&A. In my case, lecturing on pseudoscience and the paranormal, I am almost always asked: What is my position on the afterlife? ("I'm for it"), have I ever encountered a mystery that science cannot explain? ("Paris Hilton"), and have I ever been skeptical of something that turned out to be real? For this final question I have a serious answer: intuition.

` Well, duh! I've been reading this stuff for years! I wish I remembered most of it.

` It turns out there's a lot more to thinking than meets the experimental eye, and Malcolm Gladwell has penned an absolutely delightful summary of all the important research in the study of intuition.

` Science prevails for nonrationality! It was the least Shermer could expect.

` What is happening here is nonrational (not irrational) analysis at a level below conscious awareness. Students who view three 10-second video clips of a professor, for example, give roughly the same ratings of that professor's effectiveness as those students who actually took the course.

` I've heard about this before... quite helpful, intuition, isn't it?

` The same effect - called "thin slicing" - can be seen in dating, where first impressions are everything, as is well known by those who have tried "speed dating,"... We are collecting data about a person or situation, and that data is being analyzed somewhere in the brain. How precisely that is being done remains a mystery.

` Almost spooky when you think about it.

` Evaluating whether someone is trustworthy or not, or whether someone is lying or telling the truth, is more accurately done by intuitive "feel" in a brief interaction than by subjecting them to a polygraph test.

` He says what intuition appears to be, for us primates, is that we evolved with a need to figure out who we can trust - and who we can't. A sense that occurs automatically in the blink of an eye is a much easier way than by thinking things through, and amazingly accurate. Even before social interactions, I'd say there were probably things animals have needed to figure out - are things safe enough to come out and forage, or should I continue saving my skin by burrowing? - and all the human intuitions are just an extension of that quick computational need.

` This explains the interesting results of an experiment conducted by the psychologist Samuel Gosling. He rated 80 subjects on the "Big Five" personality scale (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience). He found a high correlation with similar ratings of the subjcts done by their best friends - no surprise. But then he sent total strangers into the dorm rooms of the subjects and gave them 15 minutes to answer questions about the person who lived there. The strangers were not as good as the best friends in evaluating extraversion and agreeableness, but on conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience, the strangers knew the subjects better than their best friends!

` Well, isn't that the damndest thing? Of course, he goes on about how people tend to be racist and sexist and stuff, all 'intuitively'. The dark side of blink?

` Gladwell took the test and was rated as having "moderate automatic preference for whites"; "but then again, I'm half black," he points out.

!?!? Why? Because he is immersed in a culture linking white with good, and these get pounded into the subconscious. So don't beat yourself up if you subconsciously do.

` Gladwell is presenting science at level three [this would be 'popular general'], where it is most needed, and where good writing is most vital. He has the ability to synthesize a large body of scientific data into a highly readable, page-turning narrative, and to convert the raw numbers and statistics into meaningful facts for our personal lives. I thought he did this brilliantly with The Tipping Point, and I think he does it even better in Blink.

` He wrote The... HE DID! I haven't even read this one yet, and it's sitting on my shelf! Oo! I didn't know I had a book by Mr. Crazy Hair! Well, gotta go read it! Bye!

Update: Soon after this post, I bought and read Blink. It's kinda watered-down, but even so I'll have to write about it sometime.

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