It’s the Thought That Counts

It has been discussed by many that our brains are wired on an evolutionary scale, and that the rapid change of society through technological advances has outpaced us, leaving us with many disconnects between what we see every day and what we can actually handle.  In many ways, we might be happier if we lived in small tribes and were closely surrounded by wilderness, instead of surrounded by brick and cement, drive vehicles and get visual stimuli from computer or television screens.   One aspect of this disconnect, that I find quite intriguing, and I think is central to our ability to understand the world we find ourselves in, is what I call and order of magnitude problem.

Think about early man in those hunter gatherer days.  Counting is a base cognitive skill, important for our survival.  But what is that we might count?  You might count the amount of fruit gathered on any particular day, the number of children, or people.  Such numbers might get you into the 100s.  You might count seasonal cycles.  If you were lucky maybe you had 80 of those to count.  You might count lunar cycles.  Getting you to about 1040.  Even this would require some note making, because this is counting over time, and surely you would not sit there and count something that high.  Such cycles of time were the only things worth keeping track of.  We had no need to measure time beyond that.  No need for small units of time such as a second.  It might make sense to come up with some unit of measurement for distance. Something comparable to arm lengths or hand widths…something we might use to size an animal, measure height of people or spears.  When it came to traveling, you might then simply use something like phases of the moon, or number of diurnal cycles.  Once again such counting would leave numbers small.  Occasionally you might find yourself thinking about numbers in terms of fractions.  Maybe something like half a day, or a quarter of an armlength.  For things very small, you probably would no longer use armlength as your standard, but perhaps finger width.  Such techniques are ones that we still use today.

The reality is that if you think about numbers, you probably won’t get very far.  Now do a little exercise for me.  If you think of the number 1000.  How do you think about it, to picture a 1000 of something?  You might think what a $1000 can buy, but money is a fiction that represents a quantity of stuff you can buy which varies depending on what stuff your buying.  If you wanted to actually count, what would you think about.  Maybe 1000 people in a room.  You might have a sense for how big a group that is.  Chances are you won’t get it exactly.  Go down to a 100 and your chances of picturing 100 things gets better.  Now do 10 of something.  Pretty easy.  Now do 1.  Even easier.  Let’s go down another order of magnitude.  Try to think of something that is 0.1.  Here as we move down an order of magnitude we can no longer count whole things.  So think of 1/10th of a person probably gets a bit graphic, so what are you thinking of to imagine 0.1?  For that you now have to think of some standard.  Maybe a mile, an inch, a meter?  Depending on what you choose, you can do okay.  Now try 1/100th.  Again with the right starting point you might do okay, but even dividing by 100 can be hard for someone without a formal education and once we get to 1/1000th our ability to guess at the meaning of that fraction is severely reduced regardless of our starting point.  So if you are keeping track this puts the human mind, on a good day our brains are capable of somewhat accurately sorting out 5 orders of magnitude (10-2 – 103).  However, if we look at the scale of the universe in size we span 52 orders of magnitude from the plank length to the size of the observable universe (please see this very cool interactive graphic that allows you to explore the different spatial scales of the universe).  In terms of time, our quantum clocks can measure up to 1  ten billionth of a second (10-10) .  Meanwhile we know the universe has been around for about 14 billion years (1015 seconds).  If you don’t have trouble digesting such numbers you are a super genius, because everybody should.  Those are just the extremes, but unless you are within that 5 orders of magnitude range I discussed earlier, it makes little difference.  And this is also important because it means that a million miles, might as well be a billion miles in our head.  However, the difference between those two numbers is meaningful.  In science, to consider two numbers like that the same would be to make a grievous error on the order of 100,000%.

Scientists, through years of working with the numbers that shape our world are often better at dealing with these things, but even scientists tend to use conventions to make numbers easier to manage.  There is a reason why you don’t measure the distance from New York City to Boston in inches.  We have developed different units of measurement for distance.  In the old English system we have inches, feet, yards and miles.  In metric, we have prefixes that span numerous orders of magnitude so that we don’t have to always report distance in meters.  For objects in space in our solar system we might use astronomical units to keep those distances in more manageable numbers.  For things outside our solar system, light years.

                  Image of radar reflectivity.

Whatever we measure in science can change over large ranges and change at massively different rates.  Change is rarely linear, but very often exponential.  As a result, we might find ourselves dealing with quantities which very over several orders of magnitude.  In my field a good example for this is radar reflectivity.  You may not be familiar with it, but you’ve certainly seen radar images if you’ve paid attention to the weather.  Higher reflectivities indicate bigger drops and faster rain rates.  Lower reflectivities represent light rain or drizzle.  The difference in size between a drizzle drop and a basic rain drops is no more than a factor of 10, but the reflectivities span over 10- 1,000,000.  Thus, meteorologists convert those reflectivity values using decibels.  The decibel system was initially used for sound given the large range of frequency for sound waves, but now is a common tool for expressing values that vary over several orders of magnitude by taking the logarithm (base 10) of the value. This reduces the number to its order of magnitude.  For example, instead of 106 if I take the logarithm with base 10 of that number I get 6.  And 6 is much easier to wrap our heads around than 1,000,000.  I know I’ve gotten kind of technical here with this example, but the point is that nature, as we’re discovering, does not conform to the numbers our brains had to deal with when we evolved.  And most scientists, while they might have some understanding of the microscopic or macroscopic numbers and the wide ranges of values science employs, to objectively analyze and come to some meaningful conclusions we very often have to be able to visually see those numbers between about 0.01 and 1000.

You might say that such numbers make little difference to most of us unless we are in science, but let’s talk about where our everyday lives might be impacted.  First let’s start with the population of the world.  There are 7 billion people.  Try to wrap your head around that number.   Is your soul mate really just one in a billion?  Could such a large group of people create an environmental disaster? How many bodies could certain countries throw at you in a war? About 700 million, globally, live in abject poverty.  Do the numbers seem so voluminous that it’s easier to ignore human suffering, or make you feel defeated before you try?

What about some of the more important educational and scientific controversies that still exist today? Evolution has been happening for several billion years, but many would like to believe that we’ve been around for only 6000 years.  Religious dogma aside, isn’t it possible that part of the reason that some people resist what science clearly demonstrates is because we are talking about a length of time that few can relate to?  The vastness of time threatens to humble us all as blips in a universe far older than we can fathom. And its size and origin similarly attacks our human conceit at being the grandest and cleverest design in a creator’s eye.

                                         The Geologic Time Scale

Vast amounts of people also create vast sums of money.  Billionaires have almost unimaginable wealth that people still commonly believe that can obtain too.  Politicians and media constantly throw large dollar values in our faces to intimidate us.  When one wants to high light wasteful spending we can put point to something costing 100’s of millions of dollars and we shudder at such an amount being wasted.  Forgetting that with 100 million taxpayers, something in the 100’s of millions is costing us a handful of dollars a year.  I have seen the tactic used frequently.  Once again we might on some level realizes that a 100 million, 10 billion, and a trillion dollars are different, but they are all unimaginably large sums of money that in the battle for what’s important and what’s not, they can all be seen as being on equal footing. The idea that public television and radio need to be cut for austerity is quite simply a joke when compared to a 10% increase in defense spending if anybody thinks that’s going to balance the budget.

One might argue that the microscopic matters very little (no pun intended), but I do think an appreciation for that scale is valuable, if for no other reason helping us appreciation the vast variation of scales that make up our known universe.  Scientists often take very small numbers that might exist for pollutants or toxicity in foods or water, and change the unites of those numbers so that they are bigger.  I understand why, because of course we don’t want to underwhelm in those situations, but maybe it’s also a problem that we continue to cater to this limited range of numbers that our minds most easily manage.   It’s probably best to start incrementally, and perhaps a good example of how we can begin is with time.  John Zande over at his blog, The Superstitious Naked Ape, offers up a good first step towards our lack of comfortability with numbers outside of our “sweet spot”.  The start of our counting of years begins with the birth of Christ, but this is a religious and faith based reason to start the counting of the years.  Why not use Thai’s bone which is our earliest evidence of careful astronomical observations of the sun and moon over a 3 ½ year period.   Instead of the year 2017, it would instead be 15,017.

                                                                          Thai’s bone

It might seem like an arbitrary difference, but I think it would give us a better feel for the vastness of time, and a better appreciation for the numbers that shape the universe we’ve come to know.  Since there seems to be little stopping the advance of science in technology, perhaps we better find more ways to help these brains, made for a different time, catch up.

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An Evening To Remember

She opened the car door and stepped out.  Had someone been watching they would have thought it was one of those intentionally shot, sexy scenes as a bare leg clad in a sexy black pump hit the pavement.  As the rest of her emerged she was the vision of beauty and elegance.  Her carefully chosen evening gown with the slit up the left side was sure to catch the attention of many, but it wasn’t because she was vain.  She simply had good taste, and liked to look good for a special night out.  Her husband was being honored today.   Her husband had won another big case.  Civil rights cases were tough to win, and he had been winning it for the little guy for years now, in several high-profile cases.   When she had met him, it seemed they were just heading to a normal upper middle class future, with the normal rate of advance as lawyers.  But practicing law was different than learning it.  As having a family came into the picture, her passion for the law was less.  She had been offered being partner at her law firm, but it just didn’t seem all that appealing.  She also saw how much her husband loved practicing law, and how good he was at it, and it wasn’t a difficult decision for her to pull back and practice law part time.  Children and family meant something to her, and she knew that she would never find enough happiness in her career to compensate for not seeing her children more often.  They would have had no trouble affording a nanny, but it killed her thinking about a stranger spending more time with her children than her.  They would still be very comfortable, they had a nice house, and a good life was about more than money. She hooked her arm in his and walked together into the venue for the evening.

It was a reasonably big crowd as they entered the room.  People were dressed to kill, and she was equal to the task.  Some familiar faces approached them to welcome them.  She felt a bit like a celebrity as she saw more people swarm towards them.  This was their life now.  They had made it.  They were doing positive things in the world, and she had the right balance in her life in terms of career and family.  But as the people came and went the focus was not on her.  There was requisite smiling and small talk.  Even genuine heartfelt warmth.  There were good people in the room, but even they wanted their time with the man of the hour, and in many ways conversations with them were the worst.  “What was it like to be married to such a great lawyer?  How proud are you of your husband?  Did you think he would win the case?”  She tried to remain positive.  Of course he would be congratulated, schmoozed, networked, and charmed for his accolades.  What else did she expect?

She expected to be seen as important.  She expected to have value.  The way that she saw herself.  Was it so hard to believe that as talented as her husband was that he might have married someone equally talented, with equal intellect, and with an admirable moral center?  The magnificence of her dress felt like it was fading into the scenery.  She felt like an object attached her husband’s arm.  No one seemed to see her as having value, even when she knew that it wasn’t true.  She could put up with it for night though.  Right?

But if this case was any indication, he would become busier and he would get bigger cases, and his fame would continue to grow.  She realized in that moment she would not be putting up with this for one night.  It wouldn’t stop.  How long could she take being solely defined by her husband’s career and success?  Why didn’t it matter that the only reason her husband had so much time to be a great lawyer and have two children was because of her?  Why didn’t the excellence in the choices she made for her life, marriage, and family, make less difference than his?  And she was invaluable as someone to talk to when he’d come home and talk about his cases.  After all she was a lawyer too.  It wasn’t her husband’s fault society was like this, but she couldn’t help but wonder if it even entered his head to think about these things.  If he was he’d make more of an effort, wouldn’t he?  She wondered, if the situation was reversed, would any man be treated with as much indifference as she felt from others right now?  Suddenly she was jolted out of her grim analysis.

“What a stunning dress!  It must be nice to buy such expensive clothes after your husband’s big win!?”  She nodded and smiled and hoped that she look convincingly gracious for that horrible compliment.  She had the dress for several years and she could afford it all on her own.  It was like people thought she had suddenly been invented for the purpose of accompanying her husband.  She expertly stopped herself from crying and made an excuse to her husband to go to the lady’s room.  She stared in the mirror, not knowing whether a flood of tears or pure rage would come next.  It dawned on her that the rest of the evening would be spent wondering whether it was better to just continuing being small and hide in a hole somewhere, or to be visible in the crowd but still feel alone.  She decided the former was the easier choice, but then she’d have let this superficial group of people chill her into hiding.  She was better than that.  It might be a hollow victory, but she held her head high and walked out again.  There was a loose line of people waiting to talk to her husband.  Eventually they would sit down at a table to eat, and he would give everyone else their undivided attention.  With the grace of an empress she crossed the room and sidled up next to him.  Outside darkness gave a respectful wave goodbye to the dusk, and inside she was content to be the stars shining through the night, even if the heads in the room were too heavy to ever look up.

Can Multiculturalism Work?

What is multiculturalism?  Here is something that I am for, and think is a positive thing, but a recent interview I listened to made me wonder if I was perhaps defining it differently than other people.  Not that I am necessarily wrong, but it is perhaps a term that easily lends itself to some interpretation.  Perhaps part of the reason is a definition of what we consider culture likely also varies from person to person.

The argument has come up many times in Europe and North America in response to the Syrian Refugee crisis that multiculturalism doesn’t work.   My father-in-law in Poland has even joined the parade of fear over refugees and said he’s against “multy-culty”.  Many Americans describe the U.S. as a melting pot and promote that as an important part of a successful nation.  But are we really a melting pot?  It’s clear when you look around there are plenty of cultures celebrating events that are important to them.  Whether it’s religious holidays, whether it’s going to the church or temple of their religion.  There are also plenty of restaurants catering to different ethnic cuisines.  We can see the evidence of different cultural norms among African-Americans and among Hispanic groups.

So, what is it that we are actually afraid of changing?  It seems that when most people say multiculturalism won’t work it’s targeting specific values that another culture holds, or is perceived to hold that is different than values held already in the country.  But since there are clearly many diverse cultural practices that go on already that don’t bother anybody is it reasonable to say something so broad like multiculturalism doesn’t work?  I don’t believe so.  That doesn’t mean that bringing in other cultures into your own society won’t have problems.  Part of the reason why the story of immigration keeps repeating itself with one generation of immigrants being criticized by the generations before is that we generally don’t trust what we really don’t know.  But we live in the age of information so there should be a bunch of stuff we do know.   So let’s take a look, and for a little bit, ignore the fact that often in these situations the experiential knowledge goes a lot further than book knowledge.

When it comes to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan let’s face it, a large majority of these immigrants are going to be Muslims and fear of Islam is at a high today.  While extremism exists in every religion right now, a good portion of it is coming from Islam, so perhaps there is a good reason to have more fear, even if that fear compared to other things we have to fear in this world, are exaggerated.  Once again I don’t want to get into any No True Scotsman arguments, because we can say extremists are not truly followers of Islam, but they claim they are so let’s go with the idea that whatever religion people claim they are affiliated with that’s their religion.  It’s true to say that whatever small percentage of Muslims we bring into this country that are jihadists, the more immigrants we take, the numbers go up.  So I think this is always worth paying attention to since a society should always be aiming to reduce violent crime.  But for now let’s just throw away the extremist views and look at these societies in general.  We have very traditional values.  Women do not have equal rights in Islam.  They are expected to dress modestly because they are a temptation to men.  They try to protect their followers from information that would cast doubt or refute tenets of their religion.  Their governments do not have separation of church and state.  Islam has strong rewards for commitment to the religion and strong punishment for those who are apostates (both on this plane of existence and the other ones).  They have no tolerance for homosexuality.  Do any of these qualities sound familiar?  They should, they are the very similar attitudes held by a large portion of the religion right here in the U.S.  What’s very odd about it, is that the same people who have so much in common with all these potential new immigrants are the most against them coming in, and it’s the left that is happy to important such illiberal values into the U.S.

Now before you fight me on this, let it sink in a bit.  If this is the case, what’s going on.  Are we all very confused?  No, but perhaps we are a little confused.  First of all we shouldn’t expect two very similar religions to coexist happily.  It’s easy to see why to very conservative groups with slight variations on “The Truth” don’t want to share space.   It’s also not hard to see that Islam doesn’t have a high degree of tolerance towards free speech, something that many, if not most on the right, consider to be one of our most important values as an American. It is also isn’t difficult to understand why people on the left would be side with Muslim immigrants.  Certainly, when it comes to the refugees there is going to be a great deal of desire to reduce human suffering.  But let’s say, to a large degree many people, whether they support immigration or not, are moved my human suffering.  From an ideological point of view, we’d expect many people to be sensitive to the oppression they’ve endured at the hands of religious intolerance, racism, and misogyny. It’s not completely irrational, therefore, to be against allowing large groups of people that are experiencing oppression and suffering to be painted with a broad-brush stroke simply for being different.  We’re all too familiar with what happens when such attitudes persist in a society.  We know the harm that stereotyping can play and how it closes doors to meaningful conversations which can lead to an exchange of ideas and mutual understanding.  There is value in diversity and adding some might not be a bad idea.  This at least for me is at the heart of a multicultural society.

My concern is that we seemed to have reached a level of political correctness where it is not okay to criticize Islam, out of fear we will be supporting attitudes on the right.  And I would like to believe that there are many people on the right who might be similarly scared of expressing empathy to humanitarian crisis in the Middle East in case they are seen as supporting the left.  Identity politics is not helping.  We have to have some honest conversations about what we can tolerate in terms of diversity and multiculturalism.  As a liberal there are certain harmful views that I will not tolerate in any culture, and do not want to see them increasingly practiced in my country or any country.  Many of the Syrian refugees are very educated, which is helpful, but harmful cultural practices, particularly attitudes towards gender or sexual orientation are not dependent on the level of education.  It’s not unreasonable to be against importing illiberal values into our society, just as it is not unreasonable to be intolerant to illiberal values here.  It seems clear to me that multiculturalism is not impossible, but it does have limits and if you claim to be a liberal it’s of value for you to recognize that.  And on the right, the level of xenophobia and fear of terrorism is also highly disproportionate, dishonest and is not helpful to meaningful conversation.

I come from Canada and am proud to say that is one the few if not the last country that largely embraces multiculturalism, but this does not mean that we tolerate every cultural practice.  Canada can boast some of the most progressive imams in Islamic society who actively speak out against Islamic extremism.  I wonder if Canada’s inclusive attitude towards different cultures has anything to do with that?  And I am not under any illusions that racism or bigotry is absent in Canada.  It’s still a problem.  It takes time to solve such problems and I think Canada has made some impressive progress.  Growing up in Canada my view of multiculturalism was that you retain the best of your culture and adopt the best of Canada, and the nation simply gets better.  As someone who is biracial I never struggled about whether to consider myself Indian or white, I always just thought of myself as Canadian, because Canada recognized the value that other countries have brought with them to Canada.  To me, this is one of the principal differences between Canada and the U.S.  Canada definitely thinks we have some lessons for other cultures, but we are humble enough to recognize that maybe other cultures have something to teach us as while.  It seems to me that the U.S. has an attitude that it only needs to teach others, but has nothing to learn from them.  Such an attitude seems to be held by many Americans on the left and right because it seems to play out in identity politics as well.   Maybe, in the end, whether or not multiculturalism can work all depends how willing each culture is willing to listen and learn.  This is a value that we all need wherever we may live.