Bad Ideas Need Their Own Graveyard

Harvey Aughton on 2019-05-28

Some ideas become more popular even as they become infeasible. I must admit that in conversation, I too am guilty of the same self-centred projection others buy into for the sake of no argument. But is not that we do not have the capacity to change our minds in the face of a good argument. If you are like me the trip home usually involves a great deal of introspection and the realisation that the other side was not stupid. They may be correct. They still may be wrong, or misinformed, or manipulated by ideas, or hold a different point of view about the world.

The likelihood is that any idea you hold that is not a kind of belief (I include political philosophy in belief since it is showing through in New Zealand, especially in the anti-marijuana and anti-assisted dying campaigns) will become obsolete before long, replaced or improved by a subsequent better approximation to the truth, whatever that truth might eventually be.

I have played out four ideas below that I have decided to dismiss. Call it an effort to add to the discussion. One of them is the product of my own conjecture, while the other three are categorically false and should have been retired decades ago, as in the case of the first example.

Playing Mozart to your child, even in the womb

Honestly, given the state of our planet and our political system, we should play them something like London’s Calling or Death or Glory, but punk rock and The Clash are dead.

Steven Pinker — in no way punk rock — wrote in the Guardian that there is little to no evidence for the ‘Mozart Effect’. The idea is that playing infants and toddlers Mozart, or Bach — the effect should work in the case of all composers except Tchaikovsky — will somehow make them inherently smarter. It is an unsubstantiated claim and should have died a long time ago. Yet, I have heard the claim only recently, in a statement against types of music that should not be played to children; Hip Hop, Funk, and Punk.

My guess as to why Mozart has survived is somewhat in line with a study that suggested the idea, as well as other scientific legends (one of which is coming up), was easy to believe and attractive because provides a defence against parental anxieties. It is easy way to ensure you are doing something to combat the guaranteed trials and tribulations your child will face in the future. The idea that there are silver bullets to make your child more successful is appealing. The idea will be confirmed if a child is intelligent after being force-fed Mozart throughout infancy, but it is impossible to measure, and unintelligence in a child will be explained away by other factors (which is closer to the truth since we know that poverty causes IQ scores to suffer a significant drop).

Basically, parents will always want to be good parents, and will never admit to wasting time inundating their house with complex classical concertos which are almost certainly impossible for an infant to understand let alone comprehend. Parents don’t want to be bad parents. It can’t hurt their child to make them listen to Bach, surely? Not really. Even though it won’t make them smarter, they might develop a passion for the violin.

The physical root of consciousness is worth finding

What did consciousness ever do for us? Everything. Well not quite. The brain operates on our behalf most of the time. When we have a decision to make the parameters are already set, so we are not free to consciously do whatever we want. The absolute self is an illusion. Our perception is built on the model the brain provides, which has no contact with the objective reality, in that sense our experience of the world is our own person hallucination. These are probably the most robust illusions in the universe because the truth seems intrinsically wrong. Even those of us who accept the evidence must constantly remind ourselves that our conscious self is subject to our brain’s model which is built on our genes, development, environment, and autobiographical history.

Consciousness is the auditor of that model in a sense, but even then, it is unreliable. Our memories get encoded inconsistently, with some details getting lost and others gaining more prominence than they deserve. The brain’s model may be built on events that never happened, thus our conscious experience will be false.

My basic argument is this; even if we do find the root of consciousness (I do think it is physical, within the network of the body) it won’t help anybody deal with the fact that the conscious self is a projection from the unconscious brain, only allowing for superficial control, attained in hindsight. Try this simple experiment. Think about raising your arm. Don’t raise your arm but think about raising your arm. Your arm keeps moving. That is your unconscious brain. Your conscious brain must reject the movement in hindsight. Being the second in line to act on a thought is a hard thing for anybody to get their head around, though it’s a problem that shouldn’t worry us.

A better course for action than searching for the golden fleece of consciousness is probably to take the approach propounded by Anil Seth in his TED Talk (but beware Burnett’s Law when watching some of the uncontested drivel spouted in other TED talks). Anil Seth’s approach is to look at what consciousness does rather than what consciousness is. There are profound questions about what happens when we change the nature of our conscious experience through drugs, virtual hallucinations, or meditation. While these questions will not tell us the exact coordinates of the transfer from unconscious to conscious in the brain, they might just bypass the whole problem and speak to what information changes in the space between the unconscious brain and our illusory conscious self.

Oral Histories are Unreliable

Browsing the catalogue in any half-decent book shop or online at Book Depository (go there, it’s great) could only lead a rational human to suspect there are memory experts out there. My latest contact with a memory book was one about learning languages and never forgetting any of them. Sounds good to me. But there is an issue here. Why can we so easily accept those memory experts exist in the present and ignore the memory experts that have been remembering things for generations? Oral histories are not an accident, they are how identities and societies are crafted. People did not leave that to chance.

As if to add insult to the narrative that oral histories don’t work, a recent article by some biologists who travelled to Australia’s Northern Territory found that the birds do indeed pick flaming sticks up and drop them over the forest to ensure the forest fire spreads. It’s a great discovery, and it adds weight to the argument that forests fires are important for forest survival, a bird has evolved to help the fires along. Said birds live in the forest. Good science. Good job scientists. Except that it would be even better science if they had taken the Aboriginal people of the area at their word. They know the Fire Hawks spread fires. Aboriginal people have always known. If they had listened, then the scientists might have been able to move onto other profound questions about Fire Hawks, or better still, found out what aboriginal people wanted to know about Fire Hawks and work with them.

History is in the same boat. The Klallam people of Washington tell a history of surviving tsunamis by tying themselves to the tops of mountains and riding out the floods. The great flood, as it is called, has now been dug up by a team of Archaeologists, Anthropologists, and Geologists who found marine sand washed over wrecked houses, which were then rebuilt. The site is a smoking gun. An elder of the tribe was happy that it was found, so the history could become ‘not a myth’. But it should not have been a myth in the first place. Presumably, the Archaeologists were looking for something like what they found. They didn't unearth a myth and make it history. The oral history was a reliable history. Case closed. And there are many more examples slowly flooding into common knowledge. Aboriginal Australian oral histories document sea levels and other geological phenomena that are 7,000 years old. Instead of taking their history as fact, we have had to wait until a book appeared in 2018 to accept that Aboriginal histories of land are accurate.

It seems to me that we in the Anglo/American world have had our noses in books and spreadsheets for a bit too long, though those have done the world a lot of good. We are so wrapped up in our own way of tracking history that we forget that others have profound understandings of things we are interested in. Progress would be much faster, whatever progress is defined as, if historians, anthropologists, and scientists worked with local people on their terms.

Dr. Sarah Sterling in an excavation unit of Tse-whit-zen in 2004. CREDIT COURTESY OF WASHINGTON STATE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

Our Instruments are perfect simulations of reality

Night vision goggles. InfraRed goggles. Aeroplanes. This conversation is a difficult one, but none of the list here are real depictions of reality. The aeroplane may seem out of place, but I believe the aeroplane was born out of observing birds glide effortlessly and rise with a few flaps of their wings. We continue to borrow from animals for our technological advances. However, our form of passenger flight takes an ungodly amount of fuel. Flying less on average would make an incredible dent in our climate change impact. We have not emulated beautiful natural flight but made our own crude imitation. Each individual bird can fly without any kind of tool or augmentation.

The two goggle examples infuriate me the most. Firstly, because I am unable to properly articulate the difference between perceiving Ultra-Violet (UV) or Infrared (IR) light and seeing it transferred into light we can see. Oliver Sacks is responsible for my understanding of how unfathomable seeing in IR is. In his book An Anthropologist on Mars, he provides an analogous example. He describes someone who gets a head injury and instantly loses the capacity to see colour. The man was a painter, his medium was light and colour, so the change was almost unbearable.

What we need to do is flip the analogy, and medicine has done just that. There are promising programs which are developing corneal transplants and retinal implants to allow people who are partly blind or completely colour-blind to see in a new, profoundly different way. People’s perception can be completely befuddled by being given sight. Seeing in UV or IR would be like seeing a new universe, the light that passes through us every day would become visible, a kind of photonic alien invasion. Our brain’s model of the world, which is our experience of reality, would explode. That idea may be almost impossible to truly grasp, but it is fundamentally true to our understanding of the objective reality.

Notes on ideas left behind

At the moment, I don’t really mind leaving ideas behind. I am safe in the knowledge that other people won’t leave the idea of finding the root of consciousness behind. If they find it, I will applaud. But until then, I am happy to move into what I see as more fruitful areas of the Mind, Brain and consciousness conversation.

Other ideas pass us by and become no use, this is where I put the idea of ‘The Mozart Effect’, and the denial of oral histories. Whether people believe them or not, are an obstacle to being able to think clearly.

There is no good evidence for ‘The Mozart Effect’ and the evidence for the accuracy of oral histories is profoundly positive. There is an easy solution. Drop Mozart in the gutter and listen to Supersonic Rocket Ship by The Kinks. Meanwhile, give oral histories the respect they are due, treat them as reliable sources of history and include them in the human story. After that, we can engage with history more honestly.

More difficult ideas are harder to let go. The idea that our instruments are not correct simulations of reality is something I have heard people say is self-evident, before promptly saying that it is so cool we can see InfraRed light while wearing goggles. We can’t, and it is not going to change soon.

The difference between seeing something as we think it might look (via non-InfraRed light) and having InfraRed light engage with our retina and get a response, is one of actual physical significance. It changes the game since it means that much of the energy passing through our surroundings is not part of our world. Our instruments do not give us access to the real thing. The real thing, when it becomes possible, will be astounding. I’m happy to wait.