A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

Category: Reviews Page 1 of 20

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion

Surveying today’s political landscape, it’s easy to suppose we’re approaching a precipice. Passionate intransigence divides societies into blocks which, even where decidedly secular, are rallied around with religious fetishism. It seems that ideological boundaries are increasingly hardening, poisoning the political dialogue, preventing constructive discourse and contributing to almost maddening levels of senseless blustering.

In The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt investigates the concept of morality and shows how differing political groups can reach such disparate conclusions from the same starting point. Gradually building up his argument, Haidt succinctly retreads a lot of territory covered elsewhere in more detail, but which is vital to understanding his standpoint.

Of particular importance is the idea that morality has little if nothing to do with rational thinking. The human mind reacts intuitively to situations at a very basic level, leaving our cerebral rationality running to catch up when it comes time to explain ourselves. Moral reasoning is almost a misnomer; moral intuition is at the core of our decision-making. What this means at a basic level is that people tend to react to statements with their guts, and later defend those reactions with their minds. In politics, this is epitomised by the kind of debate you find on populist media stations, like this example from LBC’s James O’Brien (also available on their website should YouTube receive a letter):

Moving the goalposts

In the exchange, Brexiteer Ashley is asked to justify his strongly held position. Pinning down his argument is like trying to catch an errant moth flitting around a brightly lit room. It’s all those EU laws the country won’t have to obey. Which laws? Well, it’s not so much the laws, as how political the discussions are in Brussels. Politicians talking politics? Well, it’s not really the politics, it’s the uncontrolled immigration. From outside the EU? Well, if Britain were no longer in the EU, it would be better able to integrate the immigrants. Err… right.1I’d argue that’s why you shouldn’t ask people a stupid question, but that’s a debate for another post.

It makes for amusing radio, but for O’Brien it’s an exercise in futility. This kind of spiralling debate has no end, because the fundamental impetus for the decision wasn’t arrived at rationally, but rather – at least judging by the responses – morally. Tear down the edifice stone by stone if you will, the invisible foundations go much deeper, and cannot be struck by logic’s hammer. When every vestige of rationality has gone, the argument generally reverts to something along the lines of ‘I don’t really know, it’s just wrong.’

Where the book gets interesting is where Haidt investigates the different reactions to moral issues amongst people of different social backgrounds and political persuasions, and attempts to weigh their stances up on a six-axis matrix. This ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ measures the axes of care versus harm, fairness versus cheating, liberty versus oppression, loyalty versus betrayal, authority versus subversion and sanctity versus degradation. While as human beings we are all affected by these, the differences between us are essentially down to our weighing and valuing these axes differently.

An interesting theory, though his ultimate conclusion seems to be the laudable but rather yawnable axiom that people need to understand where the other party stands and find the middle ground. A laudable suggestion, but one which doesn’t really do anything to help solve our intractable problems: as Theresa May might one day realise, a half-baked Brexit is about as likely to please all parties as a half-aborted baby.

   [ + ]

1. I’d argue that’s why you shouldn’t ask people a stupid question, but that’s a debate for another post.

Cybercrime and the DarkNet

Cybercrime and the Dark Net by Cath Senker

As society tries to catch up with the overwhelming advancements in technology of the past few decades, it is unsurprising that governments and legislators find themselves plugging the gaps where criminality can flourish. Developments in encryption, obfuscation, distribution and anonymisation give criminals and privacy activists alike a broad toolkit for conducting their activities away from prying eyes. In Cybercrime and the Dark Net, Cath Senker offers a brief and easily digested overview of this bewildering digital landscape. The book is essentially a collection of short vignettes covering a wide variety of different forms of cybercrime, with an essentially separate second section surveying the dark net.

This is a successfully written book, but unfortunately hardly a well-written one. There is nothing wrong with the craft, nothing wrong with the content per se, but it reads very much like an undergraduate essay written with an eye to meeting a word count, rather than sculpting a theory or trying to convey specific information. I would call the style journalistic, in the sense that there is a tendency to focus on individual instances, leading to sweeping generalisations without any valid attempt at contextualisation. We’re treated to two pages detailing an instance of a young American woman whose social security number had been stolen and used to file false tax returns. Senker makes some unfounded statements about what the thieves could have done with the information, and offers the rather dubious claim that people are now filing their tax returns earlier for fears someone else will file them first, before then revealing that the IRS responded to the woman in question saying that the issue had been settled. The victim never discovered how the security breach had happened, ergo this needn’t even have been a cybercriminal offence and has little relevance for the subject matter.

Senker has clearly done a decent amount of research into this subject. Give that this is designed to be a popular introductory book on the subject, a few small mistakes in the technical nuances are relatively moot, and can certainly be forgiven given that the author isn’t an expert in the field. Subjects are well introduced and explained, while plenty of footnotes are provided for those interested in following a matter of particular interest. But again, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a university essay, the text is peppered with quotes and statistics which only ostensibly support the text and in fact rather serve to bring up more questions. In a section on online grooming, we’re told that technology facilitates the contact between paedophiles and children. A fair claim, but to bolster this argument, the next sentence tells us that Childline reported a 50% annual increase in online grooming cases in December 2015. That’s it; the line is left without further comment. But how does this bombshell fact actually support her argument? Did technology change so significantly in 2015 to lead to such an explosion in online grooming? Is this part of a general year-on-year trend or a statistical outlier? Maybe this is evidence that support services are using more successful tactics to reach those in need and should actually be interpreted as a positive indicator? Or is this evidence of groomers changing their tactics? Since the site reveals that the sample size is only in the hundreds, it would seem rather sensationalist to see any significance in the figure, and its uncommented conclusion here seems not only unnecessary, but extremely misleading.

While many of the footnotes feel like cosmetic extras, there are also occasions in the text where it is anything but clear what the author actually wants to say. In the section covering the darknet and methods of encrypting emails, we’re told that Irish-Islandic privacy activist Smári McCarthy encourages people to use encryption to increase the costs of government surveillance. This is followed by the statement: ‘if they did the cost would rise from 13 US cents a day (9p) to US $10,000 (more than 7,000 GBP).’ The cost of what, government surveillance? Measured in what? Obviously this statement can’t be taken at face value, but I’m stumped as to what these numbers are supposed to refer to. She concludes this short section by stating that this might lead governments to place only suspicious persons under surveillance, or alternatively for governments to spend more resources on surveillance, driving ever more people to communicate via the darknet. While I don’t expect the author to have access to a crystal ball, the entire section is muddled and lacks clarity.

Frustrations like this sadly abound in this lightweight volume. Somewhere under the editor’s chisel there may be a fairly decent introductory book. As it stands, I found the numerous non sequiturs, sensationalist statistics, minor inconsistencies and incongruities to make this a dissatisfying reading experience. The book lacks a certain clarity of purpose and instead attempts to cover and tie together too many bases in barely 150 pages.

[Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash]

The Man Who Mistook His Wife’s Head for a Hat

What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?

Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.

In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.

If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.

On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.

[Photo by Jens Kreuter on Unsplash]

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Maths is a powerful tool, but in the wrong hands it can be pointless at best, dangerous at worst. Unfortunately, most human beings are a wrong pair of hands. We weren’t designed for handling numbers of any complexity, and tend to be out of our depths once they go beyond single digits. But a basic knowledge of numbers makes us overconfident and keen to interpret figures and statistics we don’t really understand as if they were cold hard facts. You only need to watch someone trying to work out which packet of washing powder presents the better deal when the supermarkets add a few percentages to the labels, or our reactions to opinion polls or the latest cancer-scare headlines.

Which makes books like this important, at least superficially. Ellenberg covers a lot of ground, explaining various ideas and highlighting common fallacies and paradoxes caused by our general weak understanding of basic statistics. He uses some excellent real-life examples to highlight what the numbers can teach us, but also what they can hide. Like how someone tasked with studying how to improve aircraft survivability in the Second World War realised that they were only analysing the bullet holes on the planes which made it back; the answer to this survivability bias was to increase armour to the places the raw data wasn’t showing them.

Another case in point is the classic disease afflicting the scientific community, that focus on statistical significance (and the Whorfian perversion of calling it significance at all). Papers tend to be published when they prove a point; negative science, for all its benefit, doesn’t enjoy the same kudos. Which fact alone means that many statistical outliers get published where the overwhelming unpublishable results tend to indicate the opposite. And that’s before taking into account how the researchers massage their results to hit the threshold of significance. After all, a few small tweaks here and fortuitous rounding decisions there can make all the difference for publication.

Aside from headline-grabbing scientific papers, Ellenberg uses other real-world examples to highlight his points. A large amount of space is taken up with the risks of playing state lotteries or the pitfalls of various electoral systems. Yet despite numerous practical applications, it remains a difficult book to recommend. For all its interesting asides, the title is just too schizophrenic to ever come to any real conclusions. Often it’s as if the author got carried away guiding the reader into some favoured corner of the mathematical jungle, only to forget why he ever led us there in the first place. Certain ideas are explained in fairly pedantic fashion, taking it a few steps further than even this particular pleb needed to grasp the concept. Other times it’s as if the target group has switched and the details become more turgid and difficult to follow.

[Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash]

Wesley: The Story of a Remarkable Owl

Doubtless recommended to me because I enjoyed Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal, this story was at first somewhat disappointing in the sense that it is to a greater extent a personal memoir rather than an investigation of animal intelligence. I had been expecting a heavier, more science-laden account of their relationship, but once I’d adjusted to the style and tone of the book, I found plenty here to enjoy.

In the mid-80s, Stacey O’Brien took it upon herself to adopt a young barn owl and started what became a relationship lasting nearly two decades. She packs a lot in this short and compact volume about their life together, which is filled with anecdotes and fascinating titbits, as well as a fair few fundamentals of owl biology and psychology. Stacey progresses from surrogate mother to partner for life and mass mouse murderer for good measure. While not offering the scientific rigour of a book like de Waal’s, there is still plenty of observational evidence. Aside from which it’s a touching story, with a predictable end, but one which offers a fascinating insight into the nature of owls and the intelligence and individuality of animals.

[Photo by Doug Swinson on Unsplash]

Page 1 of 20

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén