Monday, December 31, 2012

When prophecy fails

Sour grapes: Wasn’t it Aesop who had invented the theory of cognitive dissonance?

Actually I didn’t want to write about the nonsense of the end of the world. It isn’t worth to give it so much attention, and I agree with the Russian president Vladimir Putin (probably the first and the last time that I’ll agree with him): The end of the world will be in about 4.5 billion years’ time. But the event made me think of a study by Leon Festinger and his co-workers I learned about when I studied sociology long ago: When Prophecy Fails (first published in 1956). It was rather new then when I attended my lectures.
In this book the theory of cognitive dissonance is described for the first time. The details of the study and the theory can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet, but the essence is this: Members of a small sect somewhere in the USA think that the world will be destructed by a Flood but that only they will be saved (by a UFO). On December 21 the believers meet at a pre-determined time and place but nothing happens. Although before the presumed date of the end of the world they avoided publicity, now the believers think that the world has got a second chance and they dramatically increase their activities of spreading their message to the world.
What did happen then from a psychological point of view according to Festinger and his co-workers? Before the final date the members of the sect have a certain belief about what will occur. However, the belief doesn’t come true, for the world hasn’t been destructed as prophesied. Therefore there is a discrepancy between the original belief and the facts. Festinger et al. call this a “cognitive dissonance”. Such a dissonance is considered an unpleasant experience by most people, so they want to get rid of it. In the words of Festinger et al.: The cognitive dissonance has to be reduced. Therefore the believers of the destruction of the world think that there is a reason that the world has been saved (“the world gets a second chance”) and they adapt their behaviour to it (in this case: they try to make converts). The result of the new interpretation of the belief and the adaptation of behaviour is that the gap between belief and fact (so the cognitive dissonance) is psychologically reduced.
According to the original theory the reduction process is unconscious. Moreover, it is not limited to sectarian believes and behaviour. Actually the reduction of cognitive dissonance is something everybody often does if there is a discrepancy between a belief, attitude, values, norms etc. and the facts. It is a common psychological mechanism. Later the theory has been changed in the sense that reduction can also happen consciously.
These were some of my thoughts when I heard all the fuss about the supposed end of the world because the Maya calendar ended on December 21st last (It’s interesting that the Mayas themselves had a different interpretation of what this meant). This case is unlike the one analysed by Festinger et al. in so far as then the believers avoided publicity before the predicted end of the world, while now the predicted fact received already much attention before it should take place. Anyhow, I have some questions. What will the real believers do now that Doomsday did not take place? Will they flood the world with a new interpretation of their sectarian belief and with a new Doomsday prophecy? Moreover, what progress will the study of this failed prophecy bring to the social sciences and especially to psychology? I am waiting for what will happen.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Photography as a way of seeing

Lith, the Netherlands: Photo with pinhole camera

There is no good philosophy but only philosophy that is not bad. This was the conclusion of my last blog. But how about photography, for instance? It is often said: With these modern digital cameras everybody can make a good picture. And although we know that it is an advertising slogan, many people belief it’s true. For isn’t it so that by simply pressing a button, nowadays we can make pictures that are sharp, well exposed, and thanks to the newest techniques, taken just at the moment that everybody is smiling? What more do we want in a good photo? Okay, you need to keep your camera straight, but Photoshop or another good program can solve it, in case you forgot it. So why do we still need photographers? As a result it has become increasingly difficult to make a decent living of photography. Another consequence is that the quality of photos in newspapers and magazines is often low. But it’s strange: on the one hand there is no accounting for taste, so seen that way, you can’t say: This photo is good, that photo is bad. All criteria for quality in art are subjective, aren’t they? On the other hand, people say: This photo is better than that one. How can they say that, if there are no objective quality criteria? Apparently, there are bad photos and photos that are not bad, just as there is bad philosophy and philosophy that is not bad. However, good and bad can have two different meanings here: It can mean technically good or bad, or it can mean good or bad with respect to its contents (and maybe we can apply this distinction to philosophy as well). The former refers to aspects like sharpness, exposure, and other “technical” aspects. The latter is what the image on the photo represents and how it is composed. A good photo tells a story, for instance, or we call the image beautiful, intriguing, or having a good likeness.
A photo that is good in the first (technical) sense need not be so in the second sense (concerning its contents), and that’s what we often see. But the other way round? Needs a photo with a “good” content also be technically good? In the past it was generally thought that a technically bad photo could not be good, anyway, but why should it be so? I always say: A photo is good if it represents what it is supposed to represent. A feeling need not be sharp but can also be blurred, by way of speaking, and that must be in the image. If we wanted to make a picture of John and it shows John, in fact it is a good photo; other aspects are secondary. This is striking when I present photos on an art market or in an exhibition. When I show sharp and otherwise technically good photos next to photos taken with a pinhole camera, which are a bit blurred, because such a camera has no lens, then the pinhole pictures draw the attention of the visitors, and less so the technically goods ones, even when both types of photos have basically the same contents. Obviously there is more than just good or bad in photography. Let’s call it expression or feeling, the way we look at it. Indeed, there is quality in photography – I’ll certainly not say there isn’t – but I think it is not about good and bad but it is rather a matter of seeing and perspective.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Good philosophy is not bad

Plato: A not bad philosopher?

What is good philosophy? What is bad philosophy? These questions occurred to me after having disproved the Lottery Paradox. For how can it happen that a thesis like the Lottery Paradox persists so long, while in my opinion it is so easy to refute? Is it really such a bad kind of philosophy as I think it is, or does it have strong points as well? Since I do not have a thorough formal philosophical training, because it was another route that led me to philosophy (which is not unusual for philosophers), I cannot fall back on theoretical insights or procedures that I had learned during my education, nor do I have such books. What I did therefore is what most people do today, I think: I googled my questions. However, it didn’t help me for I found a lot on the philosophy of the good and the bad but nothing about what good or bad philosophy might be. The only thing I found was that philosophy must not be inconsistent, but that’s obvious, I should say. Moreover, inconsistency may be a criterion for bad philosophical reasoning but consistent reasoning is not good just for that. It would be bad philosophy to contend the latter, since there are other factors that can make an argumentation wrong even if it is consistent. This thought is in line with Karl Popper’s brilliant idea that fundamentally it is possible to refute a theory, but that it is never possible to prove it. If this idea is applied to my questions, it means that one cannot say what good philosophy is, although one can say “that is bad philosophy”. Or rather, one can say “that is a bad philosophical argumentation”. Then one comes into the fields of argumentation theory and methodology and their rules. Or even more, then applies what Paul Feyerabend says: “Anything goes”, namely that any argumentation, also non-standard, that undermines another argumentation makes the latter a bad one (basically, for the thesis is founded on certain suppositions, like that the former reasoning is correct).
Does this mean that we can say nothing about what good philosophy is, but that we can say only that a case of philosophy is “not bad”? By chance, recently I received a contents alert from a philosophical journal that drew my attention to the article “Bad Analytical Philosophy” by Pascal Engel. The first sentences read: “Most analytic philosophers agree that good philosophy ought to satisfy certain minimal requirements: it should be clear, precise, well argued, putting forward an explicit thesis and exemplify the principle that truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion. Everyone agrees that it should be also interesting, relevant, reasonably original, rigorous, and that it should advance theoretical or critical proposals on the problems and puzzles which have shaped the analytic tradition or which are the object of current concern. Many philosophers are confident that when these basic desiderata are met, analytic philosophy cannot be bad. Nevertheless we all know that there is bad analytic philosophy.” And I want to add here: what is valid for analytical philosophy is valid for philosophy in general as well. However, in the light of Popper’s idea that we cannot positively prove a theory, that good philosophy cannot be guaranteed when we follow the requirements listed by Engel. These requirements can be guide lines at most. They’ll never reach the status of criteria that make philosophy good when strictly applied, although it will be possible to lay down criteria that make philosophy bad (even if these will not be exhaustive).
Where does this get us? The upshot is that there is no good philosophy, or rather: logically we cannot say that a piece of philosophy is good but only that it is not bad at most. But maybe this is a case of bad philosophy.
Source: Pascal Engel, “Bad Analytical Philosophy”, in Dialectica Vol. 66, N° 1 (2012), pp. 1–4: p. 1

Monday, December 10, 2012

Don’t define your concepts and you can get any conclusion

Two blogs ago I wrote about the Lottery Paradox. I showed that it was false. However, it stayed straying through my mind, not because I had my doubts whether it was really false, for it simply is. But I wondered what went wrong with the paradox and why it is still seen as valid by some. Well, I cannot give an answer to the latter, but I can say something about the former. This time I shall be less abstract and formal, so that those readers who got stuck halfway two weeks ago, will now keep hanging on my lips.
The Lottery Paradox says that we can argue that no ticket will win in a lottery, although certainly one ticket will do, if the lottery is fair. What went wrong in this reasoning besides that the statistical argument isn’t correct? I think that the essence of the failure is in the first basic principle. It runs, as you’ll remember: “If it is highly probable that p, then it is rational to believe that p.”
The central concepts in this principle are “probable” and “rational”. But what do these concepts mean? In the argument that is supposed to substantiate the Lottery Paradox they are not explained. I think that this is the real reason that the argument goes wrong. Let’s look first at “probable”. In the context of the paradox it has a double meaning. First it is treated as a psychological concept but next as a concept from the probability theory (or from statistics). The first principle of the Lottery Paradox says something like this: If it is very likely that p will happen, you can suppose that it really will, even though sometimes it doesn’t. For instance: The timetable says that the next train will leave within 15 minutes, and since the timetable is usually correct, I can better go to the station now (even though it may be possible that the rain will be too late this time). But then, in order to “prove” the Lottery Paradox, “probable” gets suddenly a statistical meaning, and then the argument is false, as I explained in my blog two weeks ago. This doesn’t alter the fact, though, that the psychological interpretation makes sense in our daily life.
There is also something wrong with the way the concept of “rational” is used in the “demonstration” of the paradox. What is rational depends largely on the situation where we have to act. Take the train example again. Suppose that I want to do some shopping in a town nearby. So, I think: “I must leave home now, although it might happen that the train doesn’t leave within 15 minutes, because it will be late or because the timetable has changed”. Then it’s rational to go now and not to check possible changes on the Internet in case there is a train every 15 minutes. If I am wrong, the consequences are negligible.
Take now this example from my blog two weeks ago: I work as a security officer on an airport where I check the passengers at the gate. Say every year ten million passengers pass this airport and only once in five years someone is caught who might have the intention to put a bomb in a plane. Therefore, it is highly likely that the next passenger is a decent person and not a terrorist. Must I say then: Well, it is very, very likely that the next person is not a terrorist. I am a rational person and I don’t check her? Of course not, for in view of the consequences in case she is, it is better to check her, and the next passenger, and the next … Here it is rational not to believe that p, even if it is extremely probable that p.
Don’t define your concepts and you can get any conclusion you like.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Big Brother is watching … George Orwell

Today we are being spied on most of the time. For instance, when I am on line, many web pages I visit have advertisements urging me to follow Dutch language courses. Why do they think that I might be interested in it? Because they have sent “cookies” to my computer in order to find out who I am and what my interests are. In this case it is quite an unintelligent way of spying, for why should a native speaker of Dutch want to learn Dutch? But it is an illustration that espionage or rather being spied on has become an intrinsic part of our lives.
The best known way of such espionage is the use of surveillance cameras, also called, CCTV cameras (CCTV = Closed Circuit TV). You find them everywhere. For instance, when I am going to make a run in the wood behind my house, the first steps after I have left my street are on the grounds of a psychiatric institute and the first thing I see is a CCTV camera. In the past sometimes I met a security guard on his round. Then he greeted me, but the camera says nothing.
Obviously, cameras are not employed without reason. People want to keep an eye on their properties. Authorities want to watch the public space hoping that it will become safer and more secure. And there are many other good (and also bad) reasons for installing cameras. Does it work? Studies show it hardly does.
The first CCTV system was installed seventy years ago. Before there were other ways to spy on, of course. However, these systems were personal in some way, for the watching agent was a person of flesh and blood. In a certain sense it is still so: Behind a surveillance camera there is someone who looks on a screen seeing what is happening. But more and more the systems are automated and systems of automatic face recognition exist already.
The science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (first published in 1924) was a source of inspiration for George Orwell. People there lived in a kind of see-through houses where everybody could observe what everybody else was doing. If you wanted to have a few private hours for yourself, for instance for passing an evening with your sweetheart, you had to apply for an official permit to close your curtains. George Orwell has replaced this quite primitive system by telescreens in each house and on all public places with hidden microphones and cameras. The leader of the state where all this happens is called Big Brother, and everywhere there are posters of him with the caption “Big Brother is watching you”.
Today gradually Orwell’s novel seems to become reality, and, how cynical, in Orwell’s country Britain in the first place. An article on the Internet from the London Evening Standard from 2007 tells me that there were already 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain in that year, or one for every 14 people in the country and 20 per cent of cameras globally. “It has been calculated”, so the article, “that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.” And where do we find these spy cameras? Around Orwell’s former home in North London, for instance. Within less than 200 metres from this flat, where Orwell lived until his death in 1950, there are 32 CCTV cameras, “scanning every move”, so the article. And it continues: “Orwell's view of the tree-filled gardens outside the flat is under 24-hour surveillance from two cameras perched on traffic lights. The flat's rear windows are constantly viewed from two more security cameras outside a conference centre ... In a lane, just off the square, close to Orwell's favourite pub ... a camera at the rear of a car dealership records every person entering or leaving the pub. Within a 200-yard radius of the flat, there are another 28 CCTV cameras, together with hundreds of private, remote-controlled security cameras used to scrutinise visitors to homes, shops and offices.”
If George Orwell would still have been alive, he would have been continuously within the vision fields of our modern big and little brothers and sisters, with all advantages and risks that it involves (and I am afraid that the risks are bigger than the advantages, as I have tried to explain in previous blogs). Big Brother is watching you, also, or maybe just, when you are George Orwell.

The article from the London Evening Standard:
An interesting report on the risks and other issues related to camera surveillance: