Friday, November 28, 2003

More Than Words For Snow

Ever hear that Eskimos have scores of words for snow? Apparently it's a myth [1], as their language has around the same number of words for snow as English does (snow, sleet, powder, slush, etc).

Whether language shapes and influences perception and thought is a hotly debated issue, and while I do think it does, I don't think it does so in the same ways as it is typically considered by people on either side of this argument.

The Eskimo words for snow are often cited as evidence of language as a shaper of perception and thought, and revealing it as a myth is often used as evidence that language does not shape thought. Another example I've heard concerns the fact that one language may have a term for a particular concept, while there may not be a way to directly express that concept in other languages.

Even if any of these were true, I think they would at most provide pretty weak evidence. And I'd say the same for the other 'evidence' I've heard -- I don't think they really capture the ways that language really does influence perception and thought. I'm not saying that no one has any strong examples, just that I haven't seen any -- in what I've read on the web, in magazines and in books [2] -- and certainly not in any of the popular discussions of this issue.

I want to present an example that illustrates a way I think language does influence thought, and fairly significantly influence it. The setting is as follows. There's a research group in a university computing department who have a novel idea for a piece of computer security software. The idea itself is quite general, and could be applied in a number of situations, and what they're currently looking to do is find some commercial interest that would allow them to pilot the system in a more concrete setting.

They are in a design meeting where they are trying to put together requirements for the system, as a starting point for any potential commercialisation. One member of the team is at the whiteboard, where he's written up two colomns, one saying 'needs to have' and the other 'wants to have'. These coloumns are referring to features the software could have -- and how critical the team thinks they are.

After these colomns have been drawn up on the board, one member of the team interjects that perhaps there could be multiple sets of 'needs to have' and multiple sets of 'wants to have'. The person at the whiteboard turns to the person and with a look of incredulity asks how there could be multiple set of 'needs to have'.

He goes on to say: if the software needs to have a feature, then it goes under 'needs to have' and if it doesn't need to have the feature, then the feature has to be something that we want the system to have or something we don't want the system to have -- there's no other possibility!

And regardless of how watertight that argument may sound, it's wrong. There can be multiple, different sets of 'need to have' because what features are critical (need to have) depends on the context the system will be applied in. As was mentioned earlier, the idea behind the software is quite general, and could be applied in a number of situations. The particular situation may influence which features the system needs to have, and which are merely desirable.

So if the argument was wrong, how can it sound convincing? Well, it's basically because the argument was based on the meaning of the words 'need to have' rather than on a consideration of the situation that those words were being applied to. If you just consider those words you have to conclude that you either need to have something or you don't need it, and that there's no two ways about it.

Essentially, the mistaken argument arised from putting words before reality. That is, thinking of the words first, then trying to think of the reality in terms of those words. We can see the truth by considering the reality first, then considering the words we're concerned with in terms of that reality. This means realising that we're considering features of the system, then thinking that the possible set of features will depend on what setting the ideas are applied to, and that thus 'need to know' depends on the setting.

I'll stop there. Perhaps I haven't made the strongest case for why langauge strongly influences thought in this fashion. Though I've seen a number of other examples of this nature in the past, other examples aren't things I can come up with from memory, so I'll be on the look out for more examples in the future - watch this space. Another thing I'd like to get into someday, hopefully soon, is why I think people tend to put words first. I think there is a very general mechanism at work in our minds that gives rise to this way of thinking -- and much else. Anyway, I've had enough for tonight -- I'm tired and my lower back is killing me sitting here on the chair. Mumble mumble, grumble grumble, bah humbug :-).

[1] See, for example, here and here.
[2] I'm afraid that I haven't kept notes on what I've read, but I can recall Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct and that there were some articles in New Scientist.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

New Hope for Heart Disease

You might have seen this news already -- it's from earlier this month -- but I thought it's still worth posting: [paraphrased] Researchers have discovered a treatment involving good cholesterol that, for the first time, appears to significantly reverse heart disease (ABCNews).

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Razor Wire Looking Glass

Greg Egan has written a great piece overviewing Australia's detention of Asylum Seekers. Nicely written and informative.

Here's the first part:

Port Hedland is a sleepy, sun-drenched town, 1300 kilometres north of Perth. Early in September I travelled there for the fifth time, a year on from my first visit.

Each time I return it's as if I've never been away. The tranquil streets and cloudless sky must seem idyllic to someone in the right frame of mind, but whenever the heat and silence start to lull me into a pleasant daze, I remember the words of one of my friends who lives here all year round. He had trouble sleeping, he told me, because his room felt like the grave. For him, the sense of being stranded, untouched by time, isn't restful at all. It's exactly like being buried alive.

The immigration detention centre lies at the eastern end of town. The former BHP single men's quarters, now enclosed by a high fence topped with razor wire, is surrounded by ordinary buildings: a library, a school, a recreation club. This facility is known officially as a "reception and processing" centre, but there hasn't been much reception or processing going on here for a while. These days it's more like a human warehouse. Nearly everyone here has been locked up for close to three years, and many for more than four.

Four years without freedom is a long sentence in anyone's language. Some people who tell their families back home that they're still in detention after all this time are simply not believed. "Did you rob a bank?" they're asked. "Did you kill someone?" How could anyone be imprisoned for so long, just for crossing a border to ask for asylum?

There are people here who began their incarceration at the age of four, at nineteen, at twenty-six, at thirty-four. The ordinary possibilities of childhood, youth, marriage, and parenthood have either been lost to them completely, or distorted beyond recognition. There is no stage in life when a loss like this can be borne without damage; you might as well try to remove a pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood. Worse, immigration detention does not mean serving a fixed term, with days you can count off with mathematical certainty. The sentence is open-ended.

Everyone here has been told by the government that it's safe for them to return to their homelands. Of eight Afghanis I know who've gone back, unable to bear detention any longer, six found the situation so perilous that they had to flee again. People returning to other countries have been arrested at the airport and imprisoned without charge or trial. In at least three cases documented by church groups, rejected asylum seekers returning from Australia have been murdered. That's the choice we're offering people: be delivered into the hands of your enemy, or stay here and rot in prison.

It's hard to imagine just how corrosive that kind of stress must be. Many people here are on antidepressants and sedatives. Many have been driven to self-harm. But even those who aren't plainly psychologically ill are exhausted, debilitated, by the impossible situation they're facing.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Language in Perception and Thought: Misleading Metaphor for Nanotech

When people talk about nanotechnology machines, particularly self-replicating nanotech, they often invoke biological metaphors, such as biological cells and their self-replication.

These metaphors can be misleading, however, as -- the article claims -- "artificial replicating systems [...] are going to bear about as much resemblance to the biological variety as, say, a 747 bears to a duck".

These metaphors may be causing unnecessary concerns about some of the dangers associated with nanotech.

Thoughts in Few Words (2)

Societies have habits called traditions.

Quote on Perception and Making Breakthroughs

The difference between making a breakthrough and not can often be just a small element of perception
     -- Brian Greene

This line is from an interview in Sentific American, entitled "The Future of String Theory -- A Conversation with Brian Greene". Brian Greene is a physicist and author. The line comes from the following paragraph:

To me that suggests what a fundamental discovery is. The universe in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see. If we're all being governed by what we see, we're all being steered in the same direction. Therefore, the difference between making a breakthrough and not often can be just a small element of perception, either true perception or mathematical perception, that puts things together in a different way.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Thoughts in Few Words (1)

What greatness has been stifled by this world? The vast majority, I'd say, for everyday, in subtle and overt ways, unknown potential is oppressed. A potential I think is carried by most of us.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Round, Round, Round We Go

Can you imagine someone dictating a memo onto a tape and then mailing that tape overseas and waiting for it to be mailed back so they can listen to it, before continuing with their composition? Sound ridiculous? Why would anything so here-and-now and connected to the author involve such an extravagant interposition?

In a lot of ways, that scenario is actually pretty similar to what's going on as I'm writing these weblog posts. As I'm writing the post with my browser pointed at Blogger's editing page, I like to keep another window open showing my weblog's page, so I can see what I've written in a nicer rendered HTML than the small, cramped up text shown in the editing page.

So I type away for a bit, click on 'post and publish' -- at which point my text gets sent from my browser here in Australia to (I presume) some server in the US -- then I reload the rendered display of the post in the other browser window -- whereby the text of the post gets sent back from the US.

This round-the-world routine only takes a few seconds to complete, and I do it frequently, without giving it a thought. But imagine how ridiculous this scenario would have seemed to someone, say, 15 years ago! Who in their right mind would even think about doing that?!

A point that I think can be made is that small details can be significant -- in this case the insignificant cost and time of sending that data back and forth -- and that we tend to assume that only the large details count, with everything else being roughly in line with what we'd expect with the large details being as they are -- that large distances involve large times and costs.

One place where we are prone to making this mistake is when we consider our future. With any issue, such as transportation, health or technology, we assume that the details that aren't mentioned will stay the same as they are today.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Opinions Aren't Always Just Opinions

Everyone has opinions, but we alone own ours. To a certain extent they define who we are, and while not all of our opinions are dear to us -- so far I haven't fought anyone to the death over my view that green is a nice colour -- some of them obviously are.

Not only do we hold certain opinions strongly, but we strongly believe in their sanctity. When I express my opinion it's not the same as me expressing a fact about the world, I'm just saying what I feel. How could anyone dispute my opinion - it is just my opinion!

Nobody would argue with that, except that right now I want to suggest that things aren't always so simple and it's not always completely true that opinions are beyond criticism.

One reason is that what gets passed off as 'opinion' is quite often not really an opinion. The ostensible meaning of 'opinion' is 'simply what I feel'. I'll call this 'pure' version of opinion. In the pure version, you've got things like "I like it, because it has qualities that are, purely in my subjective opinion, good". In the common version of opinion you're saying: "I like it because it's good". Often statements of opinion are veiled claims of fact.

But that still leaves the 'pure' version of opinion intact. What about some teenager who's really into one style of music, and who honestly doesn't like the sound of any other kind of music? This might be their honest and sincere opinion. They just don't like the sound of other kinds of music.

Is there anyway someone could be critical of this opinion? I want to suggest that there might be, though this will depend on certain details of that situation being the case. But before I explain, I just want to make clear that being critical doesn't necessarily mean being nasty or attacking someone.

OK, imagine if the person has never really tried listening to any other kind of music other than their favourite, and thus haven't had a chance to get used to another kind of music in its own terms? Perhaps their opinion is based more on lack of exposure than anything else? I think this is a reasonable way to be critical of an opinion - to be critical of its foundations.

There's a prevalent, though unstated, belief which is probably going to sound a bit strange when I say it: that opinions don't come from anywhere; they just are. Under this view, criticising an opinion is a bit like criticising the colour blue. You can't do it, because it's type of thing, like a colour, which the notion of criticism can't apply to.

But that view doesn't stand up to close examination. There's always something behind an opinion, some reason you feel that way. The reason doesn't have be a consciously chosen one, nor does it have to be significant, but this doesn't change the fact that it exists. I didn't choose to like the colour green, but no doubt my like of it arises from the structure of my brain or its chemistry, or perhaps it has to do with associations I made with the colour when I was younger.

And if we trace things back, we might discover things that we might not consider so reasonable. Should we consider that person's opinion to be just as reasonable as a well-informed one, with it being the result of not being informed? Or a more in-your-face case: should we consider someone's racist opinions expressing dislike for certain skin colours just as reasonable as anybody else's opinions on the matter?

There's another reason why opinions are more than "just opinions". They have a real impact on the world. Obviously, if someone holds an opinion, then this can effect their actions. If I like green then I might be inclined to buy a green t-shirt. While it is self-evidently true that opinions have consequences, people often talk about them as if they don't.

In Australia you'd have a hard time arguing that the average person's high-level of devotion to sport is a bad thing. You'd be told that it's just their opinion, that they're free to like what they want. That assumes that there are no consequences of them holding that opinion.

Consider this, then: we all have a limited amount of time, and time spent on one thing means less time for other things. Devotion to one thing can lead to underexposure to other things, things like making yourself informed about the way the world works, and the way things are at the moment -- remembering here that an intelligent, informed populous is important for successful democracy.

Or think about how the exultation of sporting heroes comes at the expense of exposure to other, perhaps more worthy, types of people. Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in the details of arguing this point, but I hope I've gotten the basic point across - that opinions have an impact, for better or worse, on the world outside our heads.

At this point I'm going to try summarising things. There are three main points. First, though we tend to consider opinions to be opinions in the pure sense ("I like this movie"), most opinions are really expressions of what we think is really the case ("I think this movie is good"), that is, claims of fact. Second, I believe we can criticise the foundation of an opinion, even a pure opinion, and that by doing so, we may be able to say that it is less, or more, reasonable than other people's opinions on the topic. And finally, while it is often presumed that people are free to have opinions because that's just their own personal thing, free from any connection with the outer world, opinions can and do have an impact on the world and others.

So there you have it, my take on why opinions aren't always "just opinions". I can easily imagine some people reading this post and -- boom boom -- saying "yeah, but that's just your opinion". I just thought I'd get in first :-).

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Quote on Opinions and Facts

We are each entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts
     -- Patrick Moynihan

I came across this quote while doing some rambling browsing. I saw a reference to the Wayback Machine, which archives the web, and decided to take a look at it. Through that, I ended up looking up the earliest archived page for Slashdot, from back in 1997 -- and this quote was the one they had on the bottom of that page.