Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Making Assumptions

Enjoying lots of good articles lately. The New Yorker's recent "An Error in the Code" by Richard Preston in the Annals of Medicine on 8/13/07, was mindblowing. Really disturbing and fascinating. Highly recommended. (abstract only available online.)

But today, really enjoying Sleights of Mind, by George Johnson, in the NYT. We spend a lot of time in this household debating. Often the arguments fall along traditional gender lines: facts vs. impressions. But assumptions play into it on all levels. Making assumptions and how we interpret our assumptions is where we often get into the most trouble inter-personally. Who made what jump based on what? This article uses expert magicians to discuss just that:

.....Secretive as they are about specifics, the magicians were as eager as the scientists when it came to discussing the cognitive illusions that masquerade as magic: disguising one action as another, implying data that isn’t there, taking advantage of how the brain fills in gaps — making assumptions, as The Amazing Randi put it, and mistaking them for facts.

Sounding more like a professor than a comedian and magician, Teller described how a good conjuror exploits the human compulsion to find patterns, and to impose them when they aren’t really there.

“In real life if you see something done again and again, you study it and you gradually pick up a pattern,” he said as he walked onstage holding a brass bucket in his left hand. “If you do that with a magician, it’s sometimes a big mistake.”

Pulling one coin after another from the air, he dropped them, thunk, thunk, thunk, into the bucket. Just as the audience was beginning to catch on — somehow he was concealing the coins between his fingers — he flashed his empty palm and, thunk, dropped another coin, and then grabbed another from a gentlemen’s white hair. For the climax of the act, Teller deftly removed a spectator’s glasses, tipped them over the bucket and, thunk, thunk, two more coins fell.

As he ran through the trick a second time, annotating each step, we saw how we had been led to mismatch cause and effect, to form one false hypothesis after another. Sometimes the coins were coming from his right hand, and sometimes from his left, hidden beneath the fingers holding the bucket.

He left us with his definition of magic: “The theatrical linking of a cause with an effect that has no basis in physical reality, but that — in our hearts — ought to.”....

....“Allow people to make assumptions and they will come away absolutely convinced that assumption was correct and that it represents fact,” Mr. Randi said. “It’s not necessarily so.”

1 comment:

Stacy said...

Hi, I read the New Yorker, too and I loved both articles you mentioned, especially "error in the code".(and the cartoons, of course..,)