Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part 4)

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

I thought I was done with “Why We Need Hokum” at the end of our third installment (here are parts one, two, and three), but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Getting back to the topic of hokum and why we need it, I’ve been interested in the various pieces of research that suggest an actual structural difference between the minds of conservatives and liberals, and not just because of the schadenfreude.

A 2008 study, “The Secret Lives of Liberals and Conservatives: Personality Profiles, Interaction Styles, and the Things They Leave Behind,” by Dana Carney, John Jost, Samuel Gosling, and Jeff Potter, published in Political Psychology, provides this helpful table combining the results of 27 different studies covering the period 1930 to 2007. (I use this particular example because it has both positive and negative traits listed for both sides.)

Personality Traits Theorized to be Associated with Liberal (or Left-Wing) and Conservative (or Right-Wing) Orientation                                                                              

  • Slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent
  • Eccentric, sensitive, individualistic
  • Open, tolerant, flexible
  • Live-loving, free, unpredictable
  • Creative, imaginative, curious
  • Expressive, enthusiastic
  • Excited, sensation-seeking
  • Desire for novelty, diversity
  • Uncontrolled, impulsive
  • Complex, nuanced
  • Open-minded
  • Open to experience

  • Definite, persistent, tenacious
  • Tough, masculine, firm
  • Reliable, trustworthy, faithful, loyal
  • Stable, consistent
  • Rigid, intolerant
  • Conventional, ordinary
  • Obedient, conformist
  • Fearful, threatened
  • Xenophobic, prejudiced
  • Orderly, organized
  • Parsimonious, thrifty, stingy
  • Clean, sterile
  • Obstinate, stubborn
  • Angry, aggressive, vengeful
  • Careful, practical, methodical
  • Withdrawn, reserved
  • Stern, cold, mechanical
  • Anxious, suspicious, obsessive
  • Self-controlled
  • Restrained, inhibited
  • Concerned with rules, norms
  • Moralistic
  • Simple, decisive
  • Closed-minded

You’ll notice a fair amount of redundancy in both lists, the result of combining characteristics listed in different studies. Summarized in line with the “Big Five” framework of personality dimensions, it works out this way:

Characteristic   Liberals   Conservatives
Openness to Experience  High   Low
Conscientiousness  Low   High
Extraversion   High   Low in two categories
Agreeableness   Not listed   Mixed
Neuroticism   Not listed   High in two categories

Agreeableness and neuroticism don’t seem to be correlated with political belief, and while extraversion appears multiple times in the liberal mindset, its reverse appears only twice in the conservative mindset. The characteristics of openness to experience and conscientiousness, however, appear more consistently correlated with political attitude.

Evidence that these personality differences are innate comes from a 2006 longitudinal study in the Journal of Research in Personality, in which “preschool children who later identified themselves as liberal were perceived by their teachers as: self-reliant, energetic, emotionally expressive, gregarious, and impulsive. By contrast, those children who later identified as conservative were seen as: rigid, inhibited, indecisive, fearful, and overcontrolled.”

More powerfully, it seems that actual brain structure differs in self-identified liberals and conservatives. In a 2011 study by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Kanai (“Political Orientations Are Correlated with Brain Structure in Young Adults” in Current Biology) MRI scans revealed that self-identified conservative brains had a larger amygdala, associated with greater sensitivity to fear and disgust in emotional learning, and liberals had an increase in the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with monitoring uncertainty and handling conflicting information. Numerous other studies have produced similar results; Wikipedia summarizes them here.

While I’m persuaded that there are significant differences in human brains, and that differences in brain structure can naturally express themselves in terms of political leaning, I’m less persuaded (schadenfreude notwithstanding) that things line up so neatly by political party. I know political conservatives who are slovenly, creative, impulsive, and nuanced, and political liberals who are trustworthy, conventional, fearful, anxious, and closed-minded. A Republican alliance that mixes Western libertarians with Southern religious conservatives is hardly one-dimensional; the Democratic alliance is equally diverse. Still, trends are trends, and what may be untrue of individuals may yet be statistically descriptive of the group to which they belong.

One characteristic of hokum is that it’s simplistic: hokum strips away complexity and nuance and substitutes the comfort of concrete knowledge — even if it’s false. While it’s tempting to allocate the need for hokum to whichever political party we personally disfavor, I think it’s more accurate to say that both conservatives and liberals embrace hokum in some areas and reject it in others, depending on what fits the mental narrative that gives us greatest comfort. A belief in the perfectability of man is as much hokum as a belief in the inherent evil of the species. It’s easy enough to provide examples in support of either proposition; the truth is mixed.

In our long discussion of cognitive bias and decision disorders, we learned that no human being is, or possibly can be, free of such distortions. Bias is inherent, but that doesn’t mean all bias is equal. The attempt to be even-handed and accurate, to identify and fight sources of bias within one’s own thinking, is a noble and useful effort even when it’s doomed to failure.

The research on brain functioning has often been reported as a science-based dissing of conservative mental attitudes, but that’s not fair. Both the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex are part of our minds for a reason. The amygdala is part of our brain because the fear and disgust reflex is often a useful response to environmental hazards and threats. The anterior cingulate cortex’s desire for novelty, creativity, and impulsiveness can lead to disaster. We ignore either at our peril.

In the last installment of this discussion, we observed that some counter-factual beliefs can be positive. Believing that your romantic partner is unique, amazing, and special — even if objective evidence argues otherwise — contributes to a successful relationship.

We all do need hokum, liberal and conservative alike, and that’s not necessarily destructive as long as we combine our beliefs with self-awareness. All of our brains — liberal and conservative alike — contain both an amygdala and an anterior cingulate cortex. We all — liberal and conservative alike — have the mental equipment to challenge our own beliefs and recognize hokum when we see it, without necessarily changing our values in the process. And we all — liberal and conservative alike — have the moral obligation to do so.

There may be a Part 5, or perhaps not. Whether that’s “slovenly, ambiguous, indifferent,” or “complex, nuanced, open-minded” I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nebula Awards Banquet 2012

Although I’ve been a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) for many years, I’d never attended a Nebula Awards banquet. (For my non-science fiction readers, the Nebulas are one of the two major awards given for achievements in science fiction; the other one being the Hugo Awards.) This year, the event was being held in Washington, DC, last Saturday (5/19/2012), so I decided to go.

To my surprise, I was invited to be on a panel, “World Building: Follow the Money,” on how writers should think about the economic and resource issues underlying the worlds they create. My fellow panelists were Myke Cole, a Coast Guard officer whose book Shadow Ops: Control Point, has recently been released; R. J. Anderson, a Canadian author of young adult fantasy, including the recent Ultraviolet; and Franny Billingsley, also a YA fantasy author, whose most recent book is Chime. Both Ultraviolet and Chime were nominated for this year’s Andre Norton Award, which is given at the Nebula banquet.

We were almost joined (seriously) by Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Dr. Paul Krugman, who, it seems, is a big science fiction and fantasy fan himself, but alas, Dr. Krugman couldn’t make it. It’s a shame; I would really have loved to meet him, and sharing a panel with him would have been too cool for words.

Although none of the panelists could bill ourselves as experts in economics, and in any event would have been a pale shade next to Paul Krugman, I thought my fellow panelists (and several audience members) made some good, useful suggestions to writers both experienced and striving.

My own observation came from animation great Chuck Jones, who said that the more rules and restrictions he placed on his characters, the funnier the cartoons became. In the Road Runner cartoons, for example, the roadrunner can never leave the road, or make any aggressive actions. Nothing made by Acme works as expected. If the coyote runs over the edge of a cliff, he won’t fall until he looks down and realizes what he’s done. And so forth.

I think the same principle holds true in any kind of writing. By establishing the available resources and basic economic underpinnings of whatever world, you create obstacles and challenges for your character, and that’s a good way to make any story stronger. It’s more than just money, of course: any scarce resource can serve as a motivator for your plot.

Thinking about the economic underpinnings of your story helps create a sense of realism as well. It doesn’t matter whether you share the details with your reader; it may be better if you do not. When you know much more than you’re putting on the page, that comes across to the reader, and the reader is more likely to believe in your world.

* * *

Gregory Benford had emailed me about meeting up at the Nebulas (I’m friends with his twin brother Jim), and showed up toward the end of the panel. Although I’d met Greg before, this was the first time I’d had a real conversation with him. (I was intrigued to learn that Greg's father, an Army officer, woke Douglas MacArthur up to tell him that the North Koreans were invading the south back in 1950.)

However, I had to run home, change for dinner, and pick up my wife Debbie, so we agreed to meet at the reception in a couple of hours. I got home to find Debbie getting gingerly out of the car, helped by our son James. It seems she had stepped wrong at James’s soccer game that afternoon, and broke her foot.

We didn’t know it was broken at first — Debbie hoped it was just a strain — but our 16-year old son, who’s been a volunteer firefighter for the last six months, knew better. He organized her trip to the hospital with professionalism and skill. It helped that he’d gotten his driver’s license the previous day. I went back to the awards banquet, and called my friend Mark Davis, a former White House speechwriter with an interest in science fiction, to take Debbie’s place.

We met up with Greg Benford and had a few drinks and pleasant conversation before the banquet hall opened up, then joined my friends Eileen Gunn and John D. Berry at their table for dinner. John, an expert in typography and book design, had presented a seminar earlier in the day on ebooks, which I found very useful and informative. Eileen was the presenter for one of the two Solstice Awards, given this year to the late Octavia Butler. (John Clute received the other one.)

Astronaut Mike Fincke, who holds the record for most time in outer space (over a year) gave the keynote. I got to meet him briefly afterwards. Connie Willis, newest SFWA grand master, gave a wonderful speech. (For a complete list of nominees and winners, click here.)

The party continued into the night. Greg, Mark, and I continued to talk, and finally about midnight I realized that the parking garage near the hotel was going to close, so that was the end of the evening.

Debbie was home and resting in relative comfort when I got back; she’s on crutches for the next couple of weeks. We’ve seen too much of hospitals lately. I'd been visiting my dear friend Humayun Mirza, author of From Plassey to Pakistan, who had been hospitalized after a serious fall, each day. (He's now at home and doing much better.)

As for me, I’m watching my step.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part 3)

The third and final installment of "Why We Need Hokum." Part one is here. Part two is here.

We often assume that the human mind is designed to be rational, and failures of rationality are seen as defects in human thought. In my long study of cognitive biases and decision fallacies, that’s been a continuing theme: here’s why your mind isn’t working right.

But as it turns out, that may be the wrong way to look at it. Dr. Stephen Pinker, a Harvard professor specializing in evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind, argues that the process of natural selection is not concerned with the truth per se, and in many cases actually disfavors a truth-seeking mind. In an emergency, factual truth-seeking may be way too slow; a fast approximation, even if of questionable accuracy, can promote survival.

Even more importantly, non-factual or even counter-factual beliefs play an important social role. Believing that your own social group is better than other social groups helps you and your group be more successful. Believing that your romantic partner is unique, amazing, and special — even if objective evidence argues otherwise — contributes to a successful relationship.

In fact, some evolutionary psychologists argue that the role of cognitive biases and decision fallacies exist to protect your mind against challenges that would weaken your non-rational beliefs. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth, and thanks to cognitive biases and decision fallacies, you don’t have to. Beliefs are deeply rooted in the human psyche, and it’s not an accident that they are so resistant to reason.

If a belief increases the survival potential of you and your group, on some level it’s irrelevant whether it’s actually correct. Beliefs that are clearly and immediately contra-survival (“Look, ma, I can fly!”) are evolutionarily self-correcting. It’s not logical argument and rational thinking that changes your mind, but rather the impact of your belief when it collides with the cold, hard ground. When cause and effect is less clear and less immediate, the lesson tends not to sink in.

We are not rational animals. We are thinking animals, but much of our thought isn’t rational at all. We eagerly consume self-admitted lies whenever we read fiction, and as legions of media fans can attest, the imaginary worlds we enter are often more satisfying and fulfilling than the one in which we officially live.

Hokum can expand our universe or contract it. From David Copperfield, who cheerfully admits that what he’s doing is trickery, it’s one small step to Uri Geller, who turns an otherwise unremarkable spoon-bending trick into claims of telekinesis, and not a giant leap to conclude that Area 51 is hiding a world of alien powers right under our very noses. Conspiracy theories and supernatural beliefs of all sorts give us a simple, fulfilling way to eliminate complexity and ambiguity in our lives.

Rationality, enshrined above all in the scientific method, has been under continuing and unremitting attack ever since the scientific revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries. As soon as Copernicus dethroned the earth as center of the cosmos, the backlash began. In fighting the battle for truth, justice, and the scientific way, we’ve tended to assume that we shared a mutual goal with our opposition: a desire for truth. But that, as we've seen, is not a good assumption.

Which brings up the obvious question, pace Pilate: what is truth? Gandhi argues that truth is self-evident; Churchill argues that it is incontrovertible. But Mark Twain says it best:

“Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part Two)

Last week, we began a discussion of hokum, or why people believe non-scientific things with fervor, passion, and delight, but quickly went sidewise into a discussion of etymology.

While we're on that subject, Bruce Townley writes that I missed an alternate definition of “hokum.” According to Wikipedia, "hokum" is a type of American blues music that uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos.

Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” is a good example.
I got a brand new skillet, I got a brand new lead,

All I need is a little woman, just to burn my bread

I'm tellin' you baby, I sure ain't gonna deny,

Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I'll be satisfied
Now, I got the washboard, my baby got the tub,

We gonna put 'em together, gonna rub, rub, rub

And I'm tellin' you baby, I sure ain't gonna deny,

Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I'll be satisfied
Carter is also the author of “Please Warm My Wiener,” “Don’t Mash My Digger So Deep,” and the tragic “My Pencil Won’t Write No More.” Blind Willie McTell recorded “Let Me Play With Your Yo-Yo” in 1933, and perhaps most famously, the Dominoes in 1951 recorded “Sixty Minute Man.”

Gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, better known for “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley,” also recorded “It’s Tight Like That” under the nom-de-hokum Barrelhouse Tom.

Early country music had a number of hokum hits, mostly sung by white performers in blackface, including “Tom Cat Blues,” “Shanghai Rooster Yodel,” and “That Nasty Swing.”

While hokum has largely died out, along with minstrel shows and blackface entertainers (Ted Danson notwithstanding), ZZ Top’s “Tube Steak Boogie” shows that the hokum impulse has not completely left the musical world.

But of course that’s not the kind of hokum we were talking about.

In the previous installment, I wrote that Wikipedia defined hokum as a synonym of bullshit, but I think there’s an important distinction, coming from the “hocus-pocus” part of the word’s definition.

Ordinary bullshit is simply assertion without fact, the idea that if you shout loud enough and are definite enough, people will tend to believe you. That describes the intent (and sadly, too often the result) of most political dialogue.

Hokum, on the other hand, is all dressed up and ready to party. It has a backstory, whether it’s true or not — with enough plausible-sounding information to make it slide comfortably into your mind like a White Castle hamburger. Unlike bullshit, hokum has a trace of the carny about it. Like science fiction itself, hokum appeals to the sense of wonder in us all.

Of course, labeling a belief as hokum is a direct assault on the people who believe it…which is why I’m punting that chore until next week.

More to come.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why We Need Hokum (Part One)

We were getting sercon (serious and constructive) during Arnie Katz’s floating perpetual party at this year's Corflu, the convention for fans of amateur publishing (fanzines), held recently in Las Vegas, when the conversation turned to hokum — why people believe non-scientific things with such fervor, passion and delight.

“But we need hokum,” I said.

As I started to explain further, Andy Hooper, fez-wearing superfan, leaned forward and said, “Why don’t you write about that for the upcoming 20th issue of Chunga?”

For those of you not among the science fiction cognoscenti, Chunga is a Hugo-nominated science fiction fanzine published by Andy, Randy Byers, and the mysterious carl juarez. I had appeared in the pages of Chunga previously, collaborating with Jay Kinney on “CorFlu Titanium Tag-Team Con Report,” which appeared in Issue 10. (Corflu Titanium was the 22nd of the series, and took place in San Francisco in 2005.  That year, "CorFlu" was all too appropriate as a name. Although the convention report ends on Sunday, the story continued as a bout of particularly nasty flu plagued attendees for the following week. I was in San Francisco nominally to teach a project management class, where I infected several students. This did not help my ratings.)

Now safely back from Las Vegas, I realized that I hadn’t thought through the topic nearly well enough to satisfy the demanding editorial standards of Chunga. Being in need of a blog post for the week, it occurred to me that I could get some initial thoughts down as a first draft, and from there think about something more solid. So, here goes.

Hokum, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as a synonym for bullshit, is a portmanteau word combining “hocus-pocus” and “bunkum.” The "hocus-pocus" part of hokum refers to its appeal to emotional response rather than inherent truth. Hokum is designed to make you feel an emotion, and in that way it’s often more satisfying than the dry, literal truth would have been.

"Bullshit" refers to emotional appeals disguised as fact (one scribe calls it “relevancies without data”), and thus has its major roots in the areas of politics and advertising. The word “bullshit” has a rather odd history. While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) suggests the word originates in the Old French boul (fraud or deceit), various forms of animal shit have been used to describe nonsense. My favorite of these is the German bockmist, or “billy-goat shit.”

The OED’s first citation of bullshit as a pejorative comes from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Triumph of Bullshit,” written in the 1910s but only published after his death. Here’s the first stanza:
Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,

Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,

Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,

Impotent galamatias

Affected, possibly imitated,

For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.
Written in ballade form, the refrain “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass” ends each verse.

While we’re on the subject, and I have my dictionary open, “bunkum,” interestingly, traces back to my home state of North Carolina, specifically Buncombe County, located in the mountainous western part of the state. "Bunkum" is a collapsed version of “speaking for Buncombe,” and originally took the same spelling as the county name. Its origin traces back to 1820, when US representative Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, spoke on the topic of whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state, but his “long and wearisome speech” drew catcalls and derision from the other members of Congress. “Speaking for Buncombe” became a Washington insider joke, then became common usage under a more phonetic spelling.

More to come.