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Patternicity

December 2008
Noun. The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise
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Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. (continue reading…)

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Stage Fright

November 2008
From the stages of grief to the stages of moral development, stage theories have little evidentiary support
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Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. So annealed into pop culture are the five stages of grief — introduced in the 1960s by Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross based on her studies of the emotional state of dying patients — that they are regularly referenced without explication.

There appears to be no evidence, however, that most people most of the time go through most of the stages in this or any other order. According to Russell P. Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and co-author, with John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998), “no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss… No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.” (continue reading…)

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A Random Walk through Middle Land

October 2008
How randomness rules our world and why we cannot see it, Part 2
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Imagine that you are a contestant on the classic television game show Let’s Make a Deal. Behind one of three doors is a brand-new automobile. Behind the other two are goats. You choose door number one. Host Monty Hall, who knows what is behind all three doors, shows you that a goat is behind number two, then inquires: Would you like to keep the door you chose or switch? Our folk numeracy — our natural tendency to think anecdotally and to focus on small-number runs — tells us that it is 50–50, so it doesn’t matter, right?

Wrong. You had a one in three chance to start, but now that Monty has shown you one of the losing doors, you have a twothirds chance of winning by switching. Here is why. There are three possible three-doors configurations: (1) good, bad, bad; (2) bad, good, bad; (3) bad, bad, good. In (1) you lose by switching, but in (2) and (3) you can win by switching. If your folk numeracy is still overriding your rational brain (continue reading…)

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Folk Numeracy & Middle Land

September 2008
Why our brains do not intuitively grasp probabilities, Part 1
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Have you ever gone to the phone to call a friend only to have your friend ring you first? What are the odds of that? Not high, to be sure, but the sum of all probabilities equals one. Given enough opportunities, outlier anomalies — even seeming miracles — will occasionally happen.

Let us define a miracle as an event with million-to-one odds of occurring (intuitively, that seems rare enough to earn the moniker). Let us also assign a number of one bit per second to the data that flow into our senses as we go about our day and assume that we are awake for 12 hours a day. We get 43,200 bits of data a day, or 1.296 million a month. Even assuming that 99.999 percent of these bits are totally meaningless (and so we filter them out or forget them entirely), that still leaves 1.3 “miracles” a month, or 15.5 miracles a year (continue reading…)

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Money, Markets & Morality

August 2008

Are markets moral? Is our hunter-gatherer brain geared for modern capitalism, and do economies work like evolutionary organisms? The rise of neuroeconomics, the extinction of Homo Economicus and more…

Those were the topics discussed in last week’s ABC Radio National show All in the Mind, a debate recorded for National Science Week in Australia, with outspoken founder of the Skeptics Society, Dr Michael Shermer, and shareholder activist and Crikey founder, Stephen Mayne.

LISTEN to the debate

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