Science & Society

Science and Society and how they get along.

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Location: Santa Barbara, California, United States

I'm a physicist and science consultant specialized in optics, lasers and optical engineering. This blog, StarkFX, looks at what applications physics is finding today. Or, if you are looking at my StarkEffects blog, it displays my views about and interest in the interface between society and science.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Intimidated by Experts!

Activity in some of your more important brain regions such as the anterior cingulate, a part of the prefrontal cortex involved in critical analysis of what you see and hear, is suppressed at exactly the time that it needs to be engaged. Brain imaging research shows that the areas of your brain that you rely on to “watch for mistakes” are calmed down by the voice of authority. When we perceive someone to be an expert or an authority our defenses against nonsense are lowered. We are much less critical of the advice we receive when it comes from someone we classify as an expert.

Such an automatic obedience response may serve a good purpose in situations where the authority has our best interest in mind but, that doesn’t happen often. Many, if not most, of the interactions we engage in involve authority figures experts. These people advise us on financial matters, fashions, relationships, careers and religious views. A great many of these people we see as experts for no other reason than they told us so. Yet, that is enough for us to dispense with the critical analysis of what they tell us and we end up doing silly things like pouring our money into mutual funds controlled by experts, listening to the critics about movies, taking the advice of political experts and even buying that product you saw on late night TV because the “scientific expert” told you all the benefits.
The reality is our society depends on experts. Unfortunately, the light side of that reality is that experts are less reliable than random chance when it comes to decisions we need to make. Just compare several years of any mutual fund to the S&P 500 or any predictions of political experts or futurists and you’ll see that a blind fold and a dart board would have done better. And, of course, there is the dark side where people masquerade as experts simply because we are more likely to buy what they are selling when they do.

Evidence based decision making is the only way around this problem. Scientific methods absolutely depend on real evidence, but you can’t assume the scientist (expert) really looked at the evidence until you analyze it yourself. Take into account what the experts, authorities and “leaders” tell you, but then wake up and put forth the effort critically analyze what you hear. Such reasoning is not easy and the majority of people in any society will never do it, but that doesn’t have to be you. Question authority. Reason about statements you hear and follow them to their logical consequences. Think –it isn’t illegal yet.

Troy Stark

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Positive Thinking and the Self Development Industry

I recently read a short book that laid out a more scientific approach to success than I have seen before. The book was Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success". The thesis of the book is that we have been lied to about what creates success and that there is more chance and timing (timing we simply can't control) than we are ever led to believe. Invariably, the stories we hear about success emphasize the character of the person that achieved that success with a suggestion that we will be that successful too, just as soon as we conquer ourselves, but the truth is that success, and I mean really big success, depends on being the right age to accomplish something when the once in history situation arises. Simply put: you must be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills and you had no way of knowing how to make that happen in advance.

Books on self development have predominently focused on a positive mental attitude telling you "You can achieve anything you believe strongly enough in." These have lead to some absolute nonsense like "The Secret" and others (I love the ones that claim a basis in Quantum Mechanics) proposing the view that you will recieve back from the infinite universe whatever you send by your thoughts to be amplified by that universe. Of course, if you fail, it is your fault for not having the right attitude -you must have held some doubt all along.

Well, reality is what it is and I'm afraid the PMA nonsense leads to the kind of "irrational exuberance" and "pathological hope" that characterises anyone that believes that reality depends on their thoughts (solopsists) and inconvenient physical truths can be overcome by the right attitude or belief -like those with schizophrenia or religious ferver. This PMA stuff also leads to real depression when you must blame yourself for all the failure that you have experienced and all the failure you will experience.

So, I'm going to give you the truth about success as succinctly as I can: If you are going to try to accomplish anything worth accomplishing you are going to fail. You are going to fail more times than you will succeed. Don't "blame" yourself for this, it is simply the way life is. You must make mistakes to learn and you must expect failures on your path. If you are ever going to succeed, you will simply have to learn to adjust and then keep trying. Perseverence is a necessity here. And there is a good use for PMA when it is done right. Your thoughts don't change the universe until you act on those thoughts -and your attitude is nothing more than how you deal with all the failures and struggles. The proper attitude puts things in proper perspective -you expect failure and you intend to keep adapting and trying until you learn how to accomplish your goal. Persistence will overcome many obstacles. Your attitude is a question of how you decide to feel about the things that happen. Oh, here is another important point. It isn't all about chance and timing either, as even Gladwell's book acknowledges that those who succeed are those that put in the time and effort to be ready when chance drops by. If you are not trying to do anything then no opportunity will ever show up. You must have put in the time and effort to develop your skills before opportunity will come along. Which skills you develop should depend on what you actually enjoy doing since there is no way to know in advance what the opportunity is going to look like and I guarantee that hindsight will show you that you developed the wrong skills for most of the opportunities that happen along, but that isn't the point. The point is that you enjoyed developing yourself.

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