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Monday, January 9, 2012

Emotional Fantasy and Science

Albert Mochette (1881 -1965)
There is an article at the WSJ about Aidan Dwyer.

Aidan created a new model for collecting solar energy - basically a kind of solar collector with leaves like a tree.  He published some breakthrough new science and was lauded on the internet as a genius.

Until someone discovered Aidan made a mistake and measured the wrong thing.

Now he is the focus of hate mail, vitriolic comments, and producing "bad science" according to the article.  The target of "haters..."

But Aidan is just a 13 year old kid doing a science fair project.

Now from my perspective this is a perfect thing for a 13 year old interested in science.  Do some science, see how it comes out...  At 13 you are not a well trained researcher...  Do you really understand math or logic?

The problem here is, of course, not Aidan, but the idiots out there concerned about what he's doing.

One imagines that these are adults.

So why are these adults doing this?  Don't they have better things to do?  Lives of their own?

To me these are people who have replaced science with their own imaginations.

In other words, they imagine Aidan's "discovery," based on their first impression, to fulfill some bizzare desire on their part for who know what?  Perhaps an end to world hunger, the solution of the world's energy problems?

But this kind of "elaborate story" that goes along with learning about Aidan's work is nothing new.  Albert Michotte developed a number of interesting observations around how people observe things and create stories to describe them.  (Kind of related in a way to "Thinking, Fast and Slow" which I have written about several times before.)

Michotte showed people simple movies of balls doing simple things and asked for descriptions.  People created elaborate stories to describe what they saw - even though what they saw as very "simple."  So Michotte was delving into the perception of causation (called attribution) - basically what did people's mind's do when presented with something simple which did not follow what people deem as "normal."

For example, a two second film where a rolling an animated red ball bumps into a stationary blue ball and the blue ball rolls off versus a similar film where the blue ball remains stationary for a second before it moves.  We "expect" the first case - its like billiard balls.  The second case required the observer's to create "explanations" for why the blue ball did not move at first.

But what does this have to do with Aidan?

For one thing I think that people read headline's all the time and their mind's "rush to judgement" about what the think they see.  "New Solar Array Promises End of Energy Problems"

Their minds leap to support what they've just read - my God! the kid's done it...

Only later does factual content create a conflicting scenario.

(Kind of like children who really believe in Santa Claus finding out the truth...)

So like Michotte's subjects observing a movie that made "sense" - the blue ball is bumped by the red ball and moves off - the readers of the article say "this New Solar Thing is it! - Now my life will be complete and wonderful!!"

But the later facts showing a mistake are dealt with using anger because now their investment in the belief is shown to be a waste of time (like now seeing that the move is like the second Michotte movie - one that makes no sense).  Like small children they can become angry over the incident.

This theme is expounded on to some degree in this Wired article as well.

Instead of individuals companies are making poor "investments" (in the Wired article it describes the failed cholesterol drug torcetrapib).  No one can believe that the drug fails to do what's expected even though billions are invested.

I think that what's happening here is that our minds are not making the leap form our simple, nature-based past into one where information (especially emotionally charged information) moves with lightening speed.

In nature I can hunt for a rabbit.  I sit, I wait.  The rabbit does not conduct "false" science to confuse me.  My eyes don't lie about what I see (though the rabbit's camouflage might deceive me).  I shoot my arrow - it hits or it does not.

Our minds like this because there is certainty about what's observed (whether I get the rabbit or I don't).

But stories, as told around fires for millenia, are different.  They inflame the imagination.  And to a large degree most "stories" from the past are simply that - stories.  About wolves, castles, wars, whatever.  But mostly they were disconnected from the listener in time and space.  The scary wolves live in the woods - away from the listener.

Today's stories are just as emotionally charged - saving the planet, saving the world, making your illness go away.  But because we view them as "factual" without any knowledge of the truth (and of "causation" as describe by Michotte as well as in the Wired article) we deceive ourselves into believing the story tells us what we want to here regardless of the truth.

My point is that our minds, used to a simple, natural world, are not designed to parse out deception (intentional or not) nor are they able to dissociate from the emotional aspects of the story.

We fall in love with Aidan's success and feel angry when its taken away.

We fall in love with the notion that manipulating cholesterol levels according to ill-conceived theories will make us billions only to feel angry when the plans fail.

We fall in love with the "stubborn" blue ball that resists the red ball's efforts to move it only to realize the movie is simply a trick on our perception system.

 Its little wonder that people create "scientific fantasies" out of bits and pieces - they are like good stories - they make us feel good emotionally.

Like Kahneman says in his book - our minds leap to conclusions without real facts - we cannot help it.

I think this says that we also make significant emotional investments in these conclusions.

As well as real business dollars.

The problem here is that how does humanity separate itself from its own "mind" in order to conduct object science?

Its that separation even possible?

Or are the consequences of what we might "discover" to frightening for most people to even allow them to make such a separation?

Given this what can we really expect from science?

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