Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bozo Sapiens

Bozo Sapiens: Why to Err is Human

Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan (2009, Bloomsbury Press)

What a rich world of possibilities is embedded in that subtitle! Ellen Kaplan and her son, Michael, deploy a wide range of explanatory tools in their exploration of our human minds and cultures, from studies of non-human primates in the wild, through economics, engineering, and evolution, to high-tech laboratory studies of the workings of the brain. Better still, they write really well, presenting a mountain range of research as an afternoon’s hike over a well-marked trail.
The Kaplans open with a tour of the history of our awareness of error, from the Garden of Eden, by way of the Han Dynasty, to Aristotle, one of whose great gifts to the world was formalized logic, a system of spotting some kinds of errors of reason. But formal logic can’t save us from error. Not only is it too unwieldy for everyday use, it’s a little too abstract. Aristotle knew this; he also produced On Sophistical Refutations, which covers, the Kaplans say, “question-begging, weak analogies, false generalizations, ad hominem arguments, appeals to force–all the slippery faults that, in logical terms, are not even wrong.” It’s a comprehensive inventory, with modern examples available at every turn.
Humanity’s next step in error-proofing came in the seventeenth century, with the work of Sir Francis Bacon, who invented the scientific method to bring rigor to our knowledge of the world, enabling great strides in discovery and invention; yet science remains a resolutely human endeavor. “Although we publish and review the way Bacon said we should, we simply don’t discover the way Bacon assumed we would. Our inspirations remain intuitive–rigor only makes its appearance at the write-up stage.”
So what’s the nature of that intuition? As these examples show, our brains are not machines for logic. They are tools for the lives we live, based on the lives our early human ancestors lived. In computer terms, our brains are very powerful, and very slow. They achieve quickness by operating in parallel, processing the same information for several uses; and the interactions of chemistry and electricity are non-linear, and irreproducible. On top of that, the brain structures we share with lizards and those we share with other mammals have not ceased their contributions; we do not think by rationality alone, but by autonomic systems, instincts, and emotions long written in the genome.
The result is that our brains reach for conclusive certainty on which to base decisions, as opposed to abiding ambiguous information that leaves us up in the air: “to save on expensive resources, the brain puts things in categories and assigns likely explanations to sense-experience long before it reaches the conscious decision-making mind. The world we think we see is actually an executive summary, helpfully condensed and annotated by unseen cerebral assistants.” If, as we stroll through the jungle, one possible meaning of a twig-snapping noise is the footfall of a tiger, the other possibilities don’t matter much.
It’s intuitive that one way to make mistakes is to meddle in things we’re not good at yet; think of the first hundred or thousand miles driven by a rookie behind the wheel. It’s less obvious that expertise itself conveys new and more catastrophic powers for messing things up. Pilots and surgeons are the archetypes of people who may be so confident of their knowledge and skill that they fail to take heed of new circumstances; such assumption errors can also happen within teams of experts; no matter what our level of expertise, we absorb new safety devices and procedures into our treatment of risk.
Experts are also as subject as anyone to the bias of their preferences, known as motivated reasoning. Whether they know it or not, people see what they expect to see, and what they prefer to see, “...whether it’s a case of researchers ‘finding’ that the data fits the curve or taxpayers discovering that they magically owe the government less than they’d thought. These aren’t necessarily lies–just accurate reports from a parallel, more desirable universe, which suggests why people caught out in them are so often sincere in their protestations of innocence.”
Bozo Sapiens probes some ways of looking at the ways we are like early-human ancestors, even as our culture changes rapidly around us. We face many instances of the tragedy of the commons, such as the rapid decimation of popular kinds of fish, because it’s in no one party’s interest to stop hauling them in. “We inevitably overexploit our world because our character, our set of instinctive assumptions, is far too local for our current circumstances.” But it’s also in our nature to strive for solutions, and to do so in company with others: “We are not condemned to live as our physical mechanisms dictate; in the history of a people as in the lifetime of an individual, we welcome the chance to reshape our circumstances and our expectations–that is what culture is for.”
These are lofty thoughts; this book abounds in them, but they are well grounded, too. For just 250 pages of text, the authors needed nearly 400 end notes (several of which are worth the trip.) It’s good to be reminded of how long all this has been going on: the getting and spending, the eating and dieting, the living and dying. What’s different about the current moment is this: “Life doesn’t separate neatly: local and global are intermingled, and each is compounded of elements both deterministic (like technology, taxes, and the law) and essentially random (like politics, finance, sickness, and love). We are asked to respond to the world at every scale, and have to be as interested and informed about the widest matters as we are about our most personal expertise.”
Will we have the courage to be flexible, and live with the likelihood of error? Will we have the vision to create meaning and value, even without certainty? Storytellers like Michael and Ellen Kaplan give me hope.

email edition for June, 2011