Sunday, December 23, 2007

"It's like a bully, a black hole bully punching the nose of a passing galaxy"

This blog's name is "What Do I Know" because I'm interested in how people 'know' what they know. How is it that Christians of one denomination 'know' their truth while those of another know a different truth? And Muslims yet another truth. Hindus and Sikhs still others.

How is it one voter 'knows' that Ron Paul is exactly what American needs, while another thinks he would be a disaster?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but the explanation that makes most sense to me is that humans come to 'know' things through a complex mix of ways.
  • genetics provide us with instincts and predisposed tendencies
  • experiences with the world that provide us with mostly unconscious knowledge of the physical world (visually interpreting depth and movement) and the social world (interpreting the intent of other people)
  • instructions from authorities such as parents, the media, teachers which is why Chinese babies end up speaking Chinese, unless they get adopted by, say, an American, in which case they end up learning English; and why Muslim kids usually have Muslim parents
  • logic and reason provide us with ways to examine what we know, test it, change it
All of these ways are essential, none is best for everything, some are better for some things. How they play out in our brains is different from individual to individual, and even within a single individual from one time to another.

So I found Seth Borenstein's AP story on a black hole the other day interesting. He writes:

"It's like a bully, a black-hole bully, punching the nose of a passing galaxy," said astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who wasn't involved in the research.

But ultimately, this could be a deadly punch.

What in Neil deGrasse Tyson's life causes him to see, in these images, a bully punching someone in the nose? Why does he put human intent in them? Poets use images to convey abstract ideas. If Tyson is trying to make this astronomical event understandable to us non-astronomers, why that image? Watch the NASA video and see if that is what you see.

Actually the description in the video is far less based on human emotions.

This made me think of Rohrschach tests. Those inkblots psychologists give patients to interpret. From the same ink splotches, different people see totally different things. I only have a layperson's understanding of such tests and the site said very little

The test itself, as well as the book, are too well known to require any detailed commentary here, was full of typos that didn't give me much confidence in that site. (revealing one of the ways I 'know' what I think I can trust on the internet.) had what they purport to be an actual Rohrschach test. I went through the eleven inkblots, but at the end I had to 'skip' eight or nine ads to get to a page where I could pay £8.95 to get my results. But if you just go through the test pages, you'll get the point I'm making here about interpreting what you see. The questions they ask give a sense of the different things people see. Here's one of their inkblots.

I think the inkblots - and the space activity - are good examples of seeing how people take their own knowledge, experiences, and emotions to interpret the identifical 'facts'.

One part of improving public discourse is for people to become more aware of how they know things - the stories in their heads with which they interpret the 'facts' of the world. Also, explicitly seeing how different people 'see' different things in the same set of 'facts' is also instructive.

Attending the corruption trials also emphasized the way people take in evidence and determine guilt or innocence. Clearly the jurors saw things differently than the defendants.

And, of course, some people's interpretations of facts, are a closer match to reality. My basic test for good interpretation is how successful one is in using that interpretation to predict outcomes. Sometimes this can be done - which fishing hole is most likely to yield fish? - sometimes it can't be done - which is the most beautiful painting?

1 comment:

  1. The inkblot you are showing us looks like a project I did in second grade with ink. In fact, I think I did that one. LAWYERS! Joking. I used magentas and deep azure blue with pthalo green.

    No can say which painting is best. Jurists frequently like what would look best over their couch and make "that" painting the stand out.

    Are we limited by our language and experience to understand? 12 years ago i went to visit my best friend in La Jolla, CA. I left -40 and worse temperatures where hot coffee froze mid-air if you poured it out side in Anchorage and made her stop the car so I could get out and touch the trees and pick lemons. I'd never seen anything like it. I felt like I was on Mars. I couldn't understand it until I saw and smelled and touched everything.


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