How Can We Tell When We Are Deceiving Ourselves?

masks

Last week, I received a question from one of my readers.

“Just a quick question: I’ve gotten a bit confused about your posts considering self-deception. Are ordinary things like seeing the bright side of bad things, a silver lining or an opportunity in misfortune just feeble rationalizations in order for us to live in a comfy illusion?

Your example about ‘sweet lemons’, a rejected love interest explained away as a blessing in disguise doesn’t feel to me as an illusory or self-deceptive belief. If a cancer patient is glad that they can respect life more fully after getting sick, surely they’re not just dwelling in self-deception and rationalizing away things, clinging in some mistaken belief.

Could you clear things up a little about the murky world of self-deception, for example, what is considered as a deception? It’s true that someone might for example, say that they got connected better, they’re keeping doors open, that at least they got experience and that it’s all part of life when their job interview got rejected, and this would allow them to feel better, but I’ve never considered that this would be some sort of self-deception, that they’re “wrong” in some respect.

Thanks in advance for your answer.”

My reply:

“Dear X,

That’s a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourselves, rather than learning or growing from our experiences? It is in the nature of self-deception that it is very hard to distinguish from the truth—whether the internal (emotional) truth or the external truth. To a large extent, one has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I am reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, nuanced, and mature, or does it rather feel like a shallow, knee-jerk reaction? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or do I instead feel angry or anxious or gratuitously and inappropriately elated?

Second, self-deception does not ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things, and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try and look at the bigger picture and see how the thought or reaction fits in. Did I react from a position of vulnerability or a position of strength? Am I being fair (or just) to myself and others? What would the person I respect the most think? Talk to other people and garner their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry or upset i.e. even more defensive? The degree of coherence, or lack thereof, of a reaction can in itself give us a clue as to its real nature.

Third, truth is adaptive whereas lies are destructive. So how useful is my thought or reaction going to be? Is it just covering up an irrational fear that I have always been unable to face, or is it a solid foundation upon which to build a secure and reliable future? Is it going to help me fulfill my highest potential as a human being, or is it depriving me of opportunities for growth and going to cause me even more problems down the line? Is the cycle going to repeat itself, or will I, so to speak, escape the circle of eternal rebirth?

I hope this goes some way to answering your question.

With best wishes,

Neel”

Wine Tasting Tutorials

If you would like to learn wine tasting, I’ve made a series of kitchen table videos to take you through the steps. Enjoy!

Why Blind Taste Wine?

bt

Wine is a complex combination of acids, alcohols, sugars, phenolics, and other biochemicals suspended in an aqueous solution. These biochemicals may be experienced as colour, aromas and flavours, structure or mouthfeel, and by their effects—either pleasant or unpleasant, depending on the amount consumed—on the mind and body. Parameters such as grape variety, soil, climate, winemaking, and ageing express themselves through the ever-changing makeup of the liquid in the glass, and can be analysed and interpreted (or, depending on your style, divined) by the attentive or inspired taster.

Unfortunately, unconscious bias and suggestion are all too easily introduced into this process of identification and appreciation. Ideally, a wine ought to be evaluated objectively, with only an afterthought for such factors as price or prestige, the reputation of the region or producer, the shape of the bottle, the type of closure used, and the design on the label.

The only way to control for these factors is for the evaluator to be blinded to everything but the liquid itself, which is served naked in a standard wine glass. The wine may be tasted either on its own or in a flight, in which case it may also be compared with the other wines in the flight. The wines within a flight may or may not have certain things in common, for example, grape variety, country or region of origin, and/or vintage. If these commonalities are revealed prior to tasting, the wines are presented ‘semi-blind’. The precise identity of a wine is only revealed once it has been thoroughly assessed and, for more advanced tasters, an attempt at identification has been made.

Aside from setting a standard of objectivity, there is much pleasure to be taken from this process, in
• Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
• Applying our judgement
• Relying upon and recalling old memories
• Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
• Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
• Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
• Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

The less romantic, more rational among you may rest assured that blind tasting also has some more practical purposes: winemakers need to taste their wine as they are making it; wine buyers before adding it to their lists; journalists, critics, and sommeliers before recommending it to their readers or customers; and you, the drinker, before deciding to buy it. Especially as a student, you can enter into a growing number of national and international blind tasting competitions. You can also pursue more formal qualifications and give yourself the option of entering the wine trade, which is perhaps more life affirming than many other trades.

Adapted from the newly published Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

What Lies Behind Pythagoras’ Theorem

pythagoras

Pythagoras (570-500 BC) was born on the island of Samos in what is now Greece. On the advice of Thales of Miletus, he travelled to Memphis in Egypt where he came into contact with priests renowned for their wisdom. At the age of 40, he fled the tyranny of Polycrates to Croton in Southern Italy, where he established a philosophical and religious community. Those who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and—since words are so often careless and misrepresentative—observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more eccentric rules, such as ‘do not break bread’ or ‘do not poke the fire with a sword’ may have been riddles or allegories that required interpreting. Pythagoras’ brotherly community has been hailed as a prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, indeed, for the monastic life and associated early universities.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of both body and soul. It is said that, one day, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work, and found that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led Pythagoras to believe that the study of mathematics was the key to understanding the structure and order of the universe. According to his ‘harmony of the spheres’, the heavenly bodies move according to mathematical equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never separated religion from science and philosophy, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, an Ancient Greek mystery religion that arose from pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he believed in the transmigration of the soul; that is, in the reincarnation of the soul over time into the bodies of human beings, animals, or plants (metempsychosis) until such a time as it became moral. He claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). But in his own lifetime Pythagoras had always been a paragon of modesty, declining to be called a ‘wise man’ or ‘sophos’, and preferring instead to be called ‘a lover of wisdom’ or ‘philosophos’—thereby coining the term ‘philosopher’.

It is said that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, had been schooled by Pythagoras, whence his great wisdom and piety. This story is referred to and discredited by Plutarch and Livy, not least because the dates do not tally, with Pythagoras having lived from about 570 to 500 BC, and so considerably later than the semi-legendary King Numa. Even though Pythagoras and Numa never met, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans exerted a strong influence on the Roman mind. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero indicates that Pythagoras rose to fame in southern Italy at just the same time that Brutus brought an end to the monarchy, and that many Roman usages derived from the Pythagoreans. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the nature of these usages. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells us that, in 343 BC, during the war with the Samnites, the god Apollo ordered the Romans to erect one statue to the wisest and another to the bravest of all Greeks, with their choices falling upon Pythagoras for the former and Alcibiades for the latter. Pliny expresses surprise that they picked Pythagoras over Socrates, whom Apollo himself had called the wisest of all men. But the fact is that the Romans liked to think of the Greek-Italian Pythagoras as their very own philosopher, and spun all sorts of stories, such as the one about Numa, to better appropriate him.

Apart from this, Pythagoras also exerted a strong indirect influence on Roman thinking, and indeed on all philosophy and theology, through the teachings of Plato, the principal architect of the western mind. Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil of twenty years, claimed that his master’s teachings owed much to those of Pythagoras; so much, in fact, that, in his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ influence is especially evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and in his emphasis on mathematics and, more generally, abstract thinking, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 61,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A Modern Socratic Dialogue on Psychiatric and Medical Research

socrates

Socrates: Congratulations, Phaedrus, on your recent graduation.
Phaedrus: Please don’t mention it, Socrates.
Socrates: Now that you are a physician, what are you going to do?
Phaedrus: I am applying for a research post.
Socrates: In what specialty?
Phaedrus: Psychiatry, the healing of the soul—of course! I have my job interview tomorrow. Will you help me prepare for it?
Socrates: Very well, my good friend. I shall interview you as though I were an eminent professor of psychiatry. Are you ready?
Phaedrus: I am!

Socrates: Our university has a large and highly rated department of psychiatry. How many people do you think it employs?
Phaedrus: You mean the research department and not the hospital?
Socrates: Yes, just the research department. Forget about the clinical services.
Phaedrus: I’d guess about 50.
Socrates: Are you counting just principal investigators? Or are you also including senior researchers, junior researchers, course organizers, personal assistants, receptionists, cleaners, and so on?
Phaedrus: OK, well maybe about 200 then.

Socrates: Let’s go with 200. What’s their average annual salary?
Phaedrus: Before or after tax?
Socrates: Before tax.
Phaedrus: Well, I suppose an eminent professor could make perhaps $500,000 per year…
Socrates: Don’t include payments from pharmaceutical companies.
Phaedrus: Then maybe $250,000. At the other extreme, some staff may be paid no more than $20,000. So maybe, what, $50,000 on average?
Socrates: Yes, that sounds reasonable. Let’s stick with that. So, in total, how much is spent on salaries every year?
Phaedrus: 200 staff multiplied by an average salary of $50,000. Give me just a moment… $10,000,000.

Socrates: $10,000,000, just on salaries. How much do you suppose is spent on the actual research? More or less?
Phaedrus: I would assume that most of the money in a typical research grant is spent on research rather than on salaries.
Socrates: How much more do you think?
Phaedrus: Maybe twice as much.
Socrates: So twice $10,000,000, or $20,000,000, on research projects. Do you agree?
Phaedrus: Yes, that seems fair.
Socrates: So how much is spent in total, on both salaries and research projects?
Phaedrus: $10,000,000 plus $20,000,000: $30,000,000.

Socrates: So, according to you, our department spends $30,000,000 a year. Assuming that our budget has remained constant over the years, how much have we spent since 1960?
Phaedrus: Do you mean in today’s dollars.
Socrates: Yes.
Phaedrus: Well, 53 years multiplied by $30,000,000, which is, what, about $1,600,000,000?
Socrates: Yes, $1.59 billion to be exact.
Phaedrus: Amazing.

Socrates: Right. Now tell me: what was our most significant discovery in these past fifty-three years?
Phaedrus: Let me think.
Socrates: Or any one of our more significant discoveries.
Phaedrus: I’m ashamed to say that I cannot name any.
Socrates: Why are you applying for a position in our department when you cannot even name any of our breakthroughs?
Phaedrus: I wish I could!
Socrates: Fret not, it’s not your fault.
Phaedrus: How do you mean?
Socrates: I mean, there have been no breakthroughs to speak of.
Phaedrus: Oh dear!

Socrates: If, since 1960, we have spent $1.6 billion in one single psychiatry research department, how much do you think we have spent in every psychiatry research department in the country?
Phaedrus: It must be several times that, maybe $50 billion.
Socrates: Yes, or more than that. And how much have we spent in every psychiatry research department in the world?
Phaedrus: Several hundred billion, no doubt.
Socrates: Does that include the research budgets of pharmaceutical companies?
Phaedrus: No, not at all.

Socrates: Now, can you name me one important breakthrough in psychiatry since 1960?
Phaedrus: SSRI antidepressants.
Socrates: Many intelligent people, including within psychiatry, argue that SSRIs are no more effective than a placebo.
Phaedrus: Yes, and they seem to have the figures to prove it.
Socrates: What’s more, SSRIs have disturbing side effects, whereas placebos do not.
Phaedrus: What about second-generation antipsychotics? They have fewer disturbing side effects than first-generation antipsychotics. Surely they must count as an important breakthrough.
Socrates: Some people argue that the only difference between the one and the other is that second-generation antipsychotics are administered at considerably lower doses—which explains why they have fewer disturbing side effects.
Phaedrus: Yes, and, in any case, they remain very dirty drugs. I heard someone argue that they only work because they knock you out.

Socrates: Phaedrus, are you saying that, despite having spent hundreds of billions on research, there has not been a single breakthrough in psychiatry in these past fifty or sixty years?
Phaedrus: You have given me no choice but to say it.
Socrates: And yet, you wish to pursue a career in psychiatric research. Perhaps you fancy that you, of all people, will be the one to make the breakthrough?
Phaedrus: In the cold light of what has just been said, my chances do indeed seem very slim. But perhaps medical science is more about making small steps than giant leaps.
Socrates: Small steps forwards or small steps backwards?
Phaedrus: How do you mean!

Socrates: When do researchers make small steps backwards rather than small steps forwards?
Phaedrus: When they publish research that misleads. There is a saying, is there not, that to do the wrong thing is worse than to do nothing at all.
Socrates: Do they put out misleading research because they are lacking in intelligence?
Phaedrus: No, it’s more that they are under a silent pressure to publish.
Socrates: In what way?
Phaedrus: Researchers need to publish results to appear successful and advance their careers, and, more subtly, to justify themselves to themselves. Positive results are more likely to be published than negative results, and so there may be a tendency, however subconscious, to arrive at results that are slightly positive.
Socrates: If only positive results are ever published, then negative results are hidden from view, deceiving us into thinking that a particular phenomenon is present when it is not, or that a particular treatment or intervention is effective when it is not.
Phaedrus: And that gives rise to false theories, false constructs, and false paradigms: blind alleys in which other researchers lose themselves.
Socrates: Not just other researchers, Phaedrus, but also physicians, science writers, journalists, and so on.
Phaedrus: Not to forget the patients themselves.

Socrates: That’s absolutely right. How else might we be misled?
Phaedrus: Commercial interests.
Socrates: How do you mean?
Phaedrus: Well, for example, there are pharmaceutical companies that have been known to selectively publish research with positive findings, while spinning, doctoring, or suppressing any research with negative findings. This creates the impression that their products are more effective than they are.
Socrates: Or that their products are effective when they are not.
Phaedrus: Yes, it misleads the research community, who create or adjust explanatory models to fit the “findings”.
Socrates: Which creates even more confusion.
Phaedrus: On top of all this, pharmaceutical companies spend large sums of money promoting their products to physicians and end consumers.
Socrates: How do they promote their products to physicians?
Phaedrus: By meeting with them and “educating” them about a particular product or range of products, sponsoring their conferences, contracting them as speakers or consultants, and such like. They target the most influential physicians, so-called ‘key opinion leaders’.
Socrates: So the physicians they target are those in leadership positions.
Phaedrus: Yes, just those who are driving the research!

Socrates: Well then, Phaedrus, if, after all this, you still wish to pursue a career in psychiatric research, you must take great care to avoid all these pitfalls and make small steps forwards rather than small steps backwards. Otherwise, you will have thrown away your education. You will have wasted your life. And you will leave this world, to which you owe so much, having done it more harm than good.

Invisibility Cloaks and the Ring of Gyges

George Eleftheriades and Michael Selvanayagam, researchers at the University of Toronto, have designed and tested a new approach to invisibility cloaking. Their method involves surrounding an object with miniature antennae emitting an electromagnetic field that cancels out waves reflecting back from the cloaked object. Although their tests showed the cloaking system to work with radio waves, they see no reason why, as the necessary antenna technology matures, it could not also work with light waves.

All this opens the way for a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak that is thin, scalable, and adaptable to different types of objects. Some of the uses being touted for this quasi magical cloak include hiding military vehicles and conducting surveillance operations. But what if the cloak falls, as it surely will, into the wrong hands? Have the scientists really thought through the consequences? The infamous banker Bob Diamond spoke of ethics as ‘what you do when nobody’s looking’. If bankers, politicians, and even churchmen can no longer be trusted to do the right thing, then who can? But beyond this, the cloak of invisibility raises important questions about human nature: do intelligent people do the right thing because it is the right thing or because they fear being caught, judged, and punished? More fundamentally, is man innately good, under the direction of his conscience and sense of guilt, or is his restraint rather the product of fear and coercion instilled by a Hobbesian social contract that serves to keep him in check?

In Greek mythology, the Cap of Invisibility or Helm of Darkness is a helmet or cap variously worn by Athena, Hermes, and Perseus to make themselves invisible to gods, heroes, monsters, and men. In Book II of the Republic, Plato discusses the Ring of Gyges, which, according to legend, makes its bearer invisible. The ring was once given to the shepherd Gyges who used it to seduce the Queen of King Candaules and thereby usurp the throne of Lydia. In the Republic, the character of Socrates asserts that justice is the excellence of the soul without which a man cannot live well and be happy, and, therefore, that justice is inherently desirable. However, Glaucon doubts whether to be just is always better than to be unjust. All goods, he says, can be divided into one of three classes: harmless pleasures that are desirable in themselves; goods such as gymnastics, the care of the sick, or the various ways of making money that are desirable for what they bring; and goods such as knowledge, sight, or health that are desirable both in themselves and for what they bring. To which of these three classes does justice belong?

Socrates replies that justice belongs to the third class, but Glaucon points out that most people would disagree and place it firmly in the second class. Indeed, most people think that to do injustice is good, but that to suffer injustice is evil; as the evil outweighs the good, they agree among themselves not to do injustice. If a just man got hold of the Ring of Gyges, he would most certainly behave unjustly, proving that he is just only because he is weak and fears retribution, and not because justice is desirable in itself. The truly just man who cares only for justice and not for the appearance of justice will be thought unjust and suffer every kind of evil until the day he finally understands that he should not be, but only seem, just. In contrast, the unjust man who is resourceful enough to seem just will be thought just and always get the better of everyone and everything. Adeimantus adds that when people praise justice, they praise it for what it brings rather than for itself. Realizing this, the superior man devotes himself not to justice itself but only to its appearance.

Adeimantus claims that he does not truly believe his argument, but is nonetheless pressing it to provoke Socrates into taking its other side and demonstrating that justice is desirable in and of itself. As part of his lengthy reply, Socrates famously conjures up an idealized Republic to help him define justice (or, as he puts it, “locate justice within the State”). After having defined justice in the state and justice in the individual, Socrates asserts that the just man orders his inner life in such a way as to be his own master and his own law. The soul of such a man can be said to be healthy, for justice and injustice are to the soul as health and disease are to the body: virtue is the health and the beauty of the soul, vice its disease and debility. If justice is the health of the soul, and if health is desirable in and for itself, then, by analogy, justice too is desirable in and for itself.

This is as far as Plato gets in the Republic. Notice that his conclusion that justice is intrinsically desirable does not in itself answer the original question, which was whether an intelligent person would still behave justly if he no longer feared being caught and punished. From Plato’s other writings, the answer is surely yes, even if Plato defines ‘intelligent’ in such a way that only he and some of his friends at the Academy actually meet the criteria. These select men are, of course, the famous philosopher-kings.

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