...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

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"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Martin Gardner Helped Wreck My Country…

Martin Gardner
Alfred Korzybski

[Bit of a long ramble ahead through some things on my mind for awhile.]

We’ll start with a news story (…because we live in this wonderful time when you get to make up any damn thing you want and pass it along as "breaking news"):

==> According to top-classified PRIME Security documents uncovered by TMD special investigator Alexus Jones, the Donald Trump we see is in fact an electronic Slovenian-built, fully-programmable cyborg under direct control of long-time Moscow operative Melania Kvorninski and her Russian handlers (no one has ever seen him actually use a rest room for example). 25 years in the hatching, this sinister-plot is scheduled to reach fruition in mid-2017, with complete dissolution of the American military and Congress.

Que sera sera…. (p.s… by the way, NOBODY can prove the above false; that's the beauty of fake news, where more layers of lies can simply be added on).

Moving on….
There were many factors of course for Hillary Clinton's election defeat, but the simplest is that James Comey’s late intervention torpedoed her campaign, halting her momentum and moving many undecideds (cringing at the possibility of hearing about emails for the next 4 years), over to the Trump side. Without that single news event all indications are HRC would've won, and of course she DID win the popular vote handily. But with that said, at least the Comey announcement was an actual news event. 
Another factor getting a lot of attention lately is all the “fake news” reports that got passed along (and believed) as real by the unaware (or dare I say, the none-too-bright)… some of it so ridiculous on-its-face as to bode ill for Democracy’s future! Which leads me to the two topics I want to raise here. Because... what-the-hell is wrong with people's basic critical thinking skills these days!?

American demographics are changing; specifically the percentage of older people, say 70 and over, is far greater than in the past relative to the number of young people, say 30 and under. Medical/health advancements and lower birth rates mean age proportions are becoming more skewed all the time.
But ANOTHER potential skewing is FAR more controversial...
It has been called "dysgenics" or "retrogressive evolution" (the opposite of eugenics). Unfortunately, controversial Nobel-Prize winner William Shockley brought the idea to public attention decades ago, though it well-precedes him in the biology community. If you remove notions of race and IQ from the discussion, the more general concept is worth reviewing as a partial explanation for the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-establishment, and fringe views prominently on display these days. 

Shockley spoke out at a time that the "Zero Population Growth" movement, family-planning, and widespread access to birth control were spreading across America. In brief, his idea was that the most educated, most successful, most fit individuals were primary practitioners of these new trends, while the least educated, least successful, and least fit, were largely unaware of, or uninterested in, such trends. In short, the most fit, capable couples were often deliberately limiting families to 2-3 children at most, while their less fit (less capable) counterparts were more likely to have 4 or more offspring, who in turn grew up in less ideal conditions, received less education, were generally less fit or successful, and continued the cycle — self-perpetuated skewing (of ability and education). 

70 years since the world collectively said "never again," the rise of xenophobia, anti-semitism, isolationism/nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-science, and simplistic-thinking across the globe is unmistakeable, and may coincide with factors Shockley noted decades ago. 
[An alternative explanation for recent political events specifically in the U.S. is that the right-wing have always been a part of the American populace, but were not very active politically in prior generations. Beginning in the 1960’s the Republican Party deliberately set out to contact, mobilize, and activate conservative rural and fundamentalist elements (the "Silent Majority" as it were) through targeted mass mailings and talk radio... and now also with digital social networking. They were successful -- millions who were never previously active in politics now are.]

In any event, if the numbers of less-educated, less critically-thinking people have risen in recent decades (partly perhaps because dysgenics, mathematically-speaking, may be baked into the demographics), then widespread quality education and social services may be the only antidote to all this. Which leads me finally to Martin Gardner….

The greatest skeptical mistake Gardner ever made, in my opinion, was his derision of non-Aristotelian "General Semantics."  While some elements of G.S. (and its founder, Alfred Korzybski) are easily critiqued, the broader intent and purposes of G.S. were admirable. G.S. fundamentally trains people to be aware of the many ways, words and language manipulate thinking, perception, decision-making. In short, it assists in 'critical thinking,' in dismally short supply these days. 
Gardner, of all people, should have been a fierce adherent of G.S.; instead his scorn helped make it a fringe field, doing for G.S. what Noam Chomsky did for “behaviorism” in psychology. In fact I don't know of any way to teach people critical (and skeptical) thinking without employing tenets from General Semantics. They are simple and basic, yet often not internalized by people without some instruction. G.S. inculcates a wariness of language in advertising/marketing, politics, relationships, religion, news-coverage, and even science, and a recognition of the subtle dogmatism that infuses so much communication. On a sidenote, here are a couple of popular 'taxonomies of logical fallacies' which actually relate back (unknowingly) to a number of G.S. basic principles:

http://www.obsidianfields.com/lj/venn-poster3-large.jpg
https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/poster
(You may be able to embiggen them on your screen for better readability, or download them -- they ought be somewhere in every high school, IMO!)

Seriously, it amazes me that secondary students are forced to read Shakespeare or Dickens or Hardy, but never taught rudiments of how language operates on our cognition, a far more important faculty in today's world.

I won’t try to summarize G.S. principles here, and I haven’t kept up with G.S. volumes over the years, but two of the early popularizations (there are many) that most influenced me were:
Language In Thought and Action  by S.I. Hayakawa
The Tyranny of Words  by Stuart Chase

In its own way, Alan Sokal’s “Beyond the Hoax,” which I’ve referenced here before, also touches on many of these issues. I was recently a bit miffed to see Ben Goldacre, in a tweet, imply (if I interpreted it correctly) that Sokal’s hoax may have actually contributed to the large-scale mistrust people now exhibit towards science and academics. I don’t think that’s true at all; on the contrary Sokal’s target was specifically 'postmodernism,' and some of the ’softer’ disciplines that brush on a veneer of science, but not science or true expertise itself. We need more Alan Sokals, not fewer, to combat the growing anti-elitism, anti-science sentiments thriving today.
Anyway, at the bottom of the page I’ve also tacked on a couple of weblinks that further detail the whole rift between Gardner and G.S. Some people even viewed G.S. as a “cult,” in part probably because L. Ron Hubbard was said to have incorporated parts of it for his early “Dianetics” program, but many of G.S.'s principles were broad enough that they could be employed in any number of programs.

In fairness to Gardner I will note that he was less critical of the “popularizers” of G.S. than of its foundations and some of its technical notions.

In his autobiography Gardner uses an example of how "E-prime," a G.S. idea that never caught on (which advocated avoiding all forms of "to be"), would alter some simple doggerel... E-prime version on left, standard in parentheses on the right:

Roses look red  (Roses are red)
Violets look blue  (Violets are blue)
Honey tastes sweet   (Honey is sweet)
As sweet as you

Now, I suppose to many (like Gardner) these may seem trivial, innocuous changes, but buried in language/words are deep meanings/mindsets and effects, and the effects of these two versions ARE different (the first being more accurate, less dogmatic; the second being assertive, but unprovable and potentially inaccurate). Emotions, prejudices, ambiguity are intrinsically buried and maintained in our language use. I’m a bit flummoxed that a writer as clear and incisive as Gardner didn’t show a deeper grasp of how words (dangerously) manipulate people.

Or take a different simple sentence: “Mary had a little lamb.” 
Sounds simple; you likely think you understand it. But in fact you CAN’T really understand it without more context because it has too many possible meanings. Just emphasizing different words shifts the meaning:
MARY had a little lamb.
Mary HAD a little lamb.
Mary had a LITTLE lamb.
Mary had a little LAMB.

And putting these varying sentences into different extended contexts can further significantly alter what is being said. The point is that routine language (that we take for granted) is very imprecise and ambiguous, yet people react to it as if it is clear and explicit. I’m using minor examples here, but there are far more nefarious ones out there in the world (especially in this day of bountiful conspiracy theories and lies).

There is some irony that a spurned figure like Shockley was perhaps prescient in foreseeing where the U.S. was headed, while Gardner’s much-touted skepticism led him to rebuke one program that could have prevented this electoral outcome; prevented the very gullibility and irrationality he spent his adult life battling.

Properly taught at young ages, General Semantics, would be an antidote to the nationalism, anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism we now face. Though it is still around, G.S. basically flopped back in the 50s/60s, shortly before the time that Shockley began worrying aloud about dysgenic factors in this country. 50 or 60 years later a demagogue gets elected President of the U.S. Well, no shit Sherlock!! ;-)
As a self-described “democratic-Socialist,” Gardner would be spinning in his grave (or wherever), at this year’s election outcome. But I’m here to say, even if a bit facetiously, that he was unknowingly partially responsible. 

Meanwhile, between now and mid-2017, beware of thin-skinned, orange cyborgs….


p.s… an aside: I once briefly mentioned to Jim Propp my disappointment in Gardner’s failure to take General Semantics seriously, and he countered that every fan of Martin has some one beef with Gardner; some particular thing they think he got very wrong. So rest-assured, in that context, I still consider myself a typical, inveterate admirer of Martin.

For anyone wanting to know more about the Gardner/G.S. clash here are a couple of pages that go into further detail:




ADDENDUM:  Found it a bit serendipitous that the latest post from Ben Orlin deals with “the catchy nonsense of ‘two negatives make a positive'” — this is at least somewhat similar to some of the issues General Semantics deals with in pointing out language’s weaknesses. In turn, this brings to my mind also, Keith Devlin’s longstanding crusade against teaching “multiplication as repeated addition” (it is NOT). And I’ve pointed out here before, math puzzles where the actual math or logic is simple, yet the language used easily leads people astray to wrong answers. In short, even mathematics (or at least math education) is not immune to the imprecise, misleading nature of words.


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