June 15, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 5:33 AM


WHY SMART PEOPLE ARE STUPID (Jonah Lehrer, 6/12/12, The New Yorker)

Here's a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

For more than five decades, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate and professor of psychology at Princeton, has been asking questions like this and analyzing our answers. His disarmingly simple experiments have profoundly changed the way we think about thinking. While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents--reason was our Promethean gift--Kahneman, the late Amos Tversky, and others, including Shane Frederick (who developed the bat-and-ball question), demonstrated that we're not nearly as rational as we like to believe.

When people face an uncertain situation, they don't carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren't a faster way of doing the math; they're a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Although Kahneman is now widely recognized as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, his work was dismissed for years. Kahneman recounts how one eminent American philosopher, after hearing about his research, quickly turned away, saying, "I am not interested in the psychology of stupidity."

The philosopher, it turns out, got it backward. A new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology led by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto suggests that, in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias--that's why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes--it can actually be a subtle curse.

Posted by orrinj at 5:27 AM


DOES ALL WINE TASTE THE SAME? (Jonah Lehrer, 6/14/12, The New Yorker)

What can we learn from these tests? First, that tasting wine is really hard, even for experts. Because the sensory differences between different bottles of rotten grape juice are so slight--and the differences get even more muddled after a few sips--there is often wide disagreement about which wines are best. For instance, both the winning red and white wines in the Princeton tasting were ranked by at least one of the judges as the worst.

The perceptual ambiguity of wine helps explain why contextual influences--say, the look of a label, or the price tag on the bottle--can profoundly influence expert judgment. This was nicely demonstrated in a mischievous 2001 experiment led by Frédéric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux. In the first test, Brochet invited fifty-seven wine experts and asked them to give their impressions of what looked like two glasses of red and white wine. The wines were actually the same white wine, one of which had been tinted red with food coloring. But that didn't stop the experts from describing the "red" wine in language typically used to describe red wines. One expert praised its "jamminess," while another enjoyed its "crushed red fruit."

The second test Brochet conducted was even more damning. He took a middling Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle bore the label of a fancy grand cru, the other of an ordinary vin de table. Although they were being served the exact same wine, the experts gave the bottles nearly opposite descriptions. The grand cru was summarized as being "agreeable," "woody," "complex," "balanced," and "rounded," while the most popular adjectives for the vin de table included "weak," "short," "light," "flat," and "faulty."

The results are even more distressing for non-experts. In recent decades, the wine world has become an increasingly quantitative place, as dependent on scores and statistics as Billy Beane. But these ratings suggest a false sense of precision, as if it were possible to reliably identify the difference between an eighty-nine-point Merlot from Jersey and a ninety-one-point blend from Bordeaux--or even a greater spread. And so we linger amid the wine racks, paralyzed by the alcoholic arithmetic. How much are we willing to pay for a few extra points?

These calculations are almost certainly a waste of time.

You can spend a lot of money on being pretentious.

Posted by orrinj at 5:19 AM


Independence 'milestone' praised (Stornoway Gazette, 6/15/12)

MSPs have for the first time voted in favour of Scotland becoming independent.

First Minister Alex Salmond hailed the vote, by 69 to 52, as a "milestone" in the country's history. He also revealed that 15,000 people have backed a declaration stating it is "fundamentally better" if decisions about the country's future are taken by the people of Scotland.

The declaration is a key part of the Yes Scotland cross-party campaign for independence, which officially got under way just six days ago.

Posted by orrinj at 5:05 AM


The Rebirth of Tragedy: The television show The Wire resurrects the classical Greek vision: some conflicts are beyond resolution (John Gray, 6/08/12, Prospect)

While much of the debate surrounding The Wire has focused on the concrete political issues it addresses (such as America's drugs policy), one of the show's greatest achievements has been widely overlooked. The Wire presents a damning portrait of inner-city life in America without the prospect of redemption. It has none of the faith in the ultimate triumph of justice and the saving power of goodness that shows through many of the most hard-boiled thrillers. Taken seriously--as the series was undoubtedly meant to be, though it contains many scenes of black comedy--The Wire plants a compelling question mark over the creed of nearly all of those today who insist they have no religion: the belief that the intractable conflicts that are the stuff of tragedy are slowly being left behind.

Simon has acknowledged the influence on the series of ancient tragedians such as Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Like the Greek dramatists he shows humans enacting fates they cannot escape. As Simon put it in a 2007 interview with Nick Hornby, he lifted his thematic stance "wholesale" from the Greeks, aiming "to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality. The idea that... we're still fated by indifferent gods, feels to us antiquated and superstitious... But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts... In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalised, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak."

...isn't The Wire just an argument that the city has failed as a social model and that the notion of warehousing poor blacks in high concentration hasn't worked?    Given the citified nature of Ancient Greece it is certainly a Greek tragedy.  From an American perspective, the tragedy is that we haven't used all the money we wasted on urban programs to resettle folks in suburbia.