SnowBird Diaries
Unsinkable rubber ducks
Sun, 1 Aug 2004 14:18:21 -0700
Dear John,
Bill and I have been thinking a lot about why people become hostile, or feel threatened when one points out that whatever they may think about the universe or other people, those thoughts are being generated inside their own brains and nervous system, are the result of their genes, nutrition (which so profoundly influences brain chemistry) physical and cultural environment, and experiences. Not coming from some god or spirit, some ghost in the system or supernatural origin. We've been reading a lot about the brain/nervous system/gene origin of thought. Some good titles: Steven Pinker, "The Blank Slate", and "Goodbye Descartes" by Keith Devlin. There is a great bit in Michael Shermer's book "Why People Believe In Weird Things". He was sitting in on a lecture on "How to improve your ESP" and made the comment that he thought the results they were getting in their experiments could be amply explained by the laws of probability. Later, a woman came up and said, "You are one of those skeptics, aren't you! Well then, how do you explain coincidences like when I go to the phone to call my friend and she calls me? Isn't that an example of psychic communication?" "No, it is not," the author told her. "It is an example of statistical coincidences. Let me ask you this: How many times did you go to the phone to call your friend and she did not call? Or how many times did your friend call you but you didn't call her first?" The woman said she would have to think about it and get back to him. Later she found the author again and said she had figured it out: "I only remember the times these things happen, and forget all those others you suggested." "Bingo!" the author exclaimed, thinking he had a convert. "You got it. It is just selective perception." But he was too optimistic. "No," she concluded, "this just proves that psychic power works sometimes but not others." The author concludes that believers in the paranormal are like "unsinkable rubber ducks." The analogy is so great, the image so vivid, the phrase so endearing - it fits a number of other beliefs, too, does it not? Useful for bird lovers and biologists in general.

Love, H