Mental models and metalanguage: Putting it all together

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.

This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.

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Mental models, worldviews, Meccano, and systems theory

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at how everyday entities such as a cup of coffee or a Lego pack can provide templates for thinking about other subjects, particularly abstract concepts such as justice, and entities that we can’t directly observe with human senses, such as electricity.

The previous articles examined templates for handling entities that stay where they’re put. With Lego blocks or a cup of coffee, once you’ve put them into a configuration, they stay in that configuration unless something else disturbs them. The Lego blocks stay in the shape you assembled them in; the cup of coffee remains a cup of coffee.

However, not all entities behave that way. In this article, I’ll examine systems theory, and its implications for entities that don’t stay where they’re put, but instead behave in ways that are often unexpected and counter-intuitive. I’ll use Meccano as a worked example.

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Mental models, worldviews, and mocha

By Gordon Rugg

Mental models provide a template for handling things that happen in the world.

At their best, they provide invaluable counter-intuitive insights that let us solve problems which would otherwise be intractable. At their worst, they provide the appearance of solutions, while actually digging us deeper into the real underlying problem.

In this article, I’ll use a cup of mocha as an example of how these two outcomes can happen. I’ll also look at how this relates to the long-running debate about whether there is a real divide between the arts and the sciences as two different cultures.

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Mental models, worldviews, and the span of consistency

By Gordon Rugg

In politics and religion, a common accusation is that someone is being hypocritical or inconsistent. The previous article in this series looked at how this can arise from the irregular adjective approach to other groups; for example, “Our soldiers are brave” versus “Their soldiers are fanatical” when describing otherwise identical actions.

Often, though, inconsistency is an almost inevitable consequence of dealing with complexity. Mainstream political movements, like organised religions, spend a lot of time and effort in identifying and resolving inherent contradictions within their worldview. This process takes a lot of time and effort because of the sheer number of possible combinations of beliefs within any mature worldview.

In this article, I’ll work through the implications of this simple but extremely significant issue.

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Mental models, and the Other as dark reflection.

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the first in a series about mental models and their implications both for worldviews and for everyday behaviour. Mental models are at the core of how we think and act. They’ve received a lot of attention from various disciplines, which is good in terms of there being plenty of material to draw on, and less good in terms of clear, unified frameworks.

In these articles, I’ll look at how we can use some clean, elegant formalisms to make more sense of what mental models are, and how they can go wrong. Much of the classic work on mental models has focused on mental models of specific small scale problems. I’ll focus mainly on the other end of the scale, where mental models have implications so far-reaching that they’re major components of worldviews.

Mental models are a classic case of the simplicity beyond complexity. Often, something in a mental model that initially looks trivial turns out to be massively important and complex; there’s a new simplicity at the other side, but only after you’ve waded through that intervening complexity. For this reason, I’ll keep the individual articles short, and then look in more detail at the implications in separate articles, rather than trying to do too much in one article.

I’ll start with the Other, to show how mental models can have implications at the level of war versus peace, as well as at the level of interpersonal bigotry and harrassment.

The Other is a core concept in sociology and related fields. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. People tend to divide the world in to Us and Them. The Other is Them. The implications are far reaching.

The full story is, as you might expect, more complex, but the core concept is that simple. In this article, I’ll look at the surface simplicity, and look at the different implications of two different forms of surface simplicity.

It’s a topic that takes us into questions about status, morality, and what happens when beliefs collide with reality.

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The Rugg and Taylor “Cryptologia” article on the Voynich Manuscript

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

Standard disclaimer: This article represents our own opinions, and does not reflect the views of Keele University or of Gavin’s employer, Heath Lane Academy, Leicester.

We’ve recently had an article published in Cryptologia about our work on the Voynich Manuscript, which was discussed in New Scientist. The Cryptologia article is behind a paywall, so in this article we’ve summarised the key points, for anyone who wants some more detail.

The background

Our involvement with the Voynich Manuscript started when Gordon needed a test of concept for the Verifier method that he had developed with Jo Hyde, for detecting errors in previous research into hard, unsolved problems.

The Voynich Manuscript is a book in a unique script, with odd illustrations, which had previously been believed to be an undeciphered text, either in a unidentified language or in an uncracked code. There were serious problems with both those explanations for the manuscript. If it was an unidentified language, then it was an extremely strange one. If it was an uncracked code, then it was either astonishingly sophisticated, or was based on a very unusual set of principles. The third main possibility, namely that the manuscript contained only meaningless gibberish, had been generally discounted, because there are numerous odd statistical regularities in the text of the manuscript, which everyone believed were much too complex to have been hoaxed.

Gordon’s work showed that this belief was mistaken, and that the most distinctive qualitative features of the Voynich Manuscript could be replicated using low-tech hoaxing methods. This resulted in an article in Cryptologia in 2004.

Gordon’s initial work, however, did not address the quantitative statistical regularities of the text in the manuscript.

Our recent article in Cryptologia addresses this issue, and shows how the most distinctive quantitative features of the VMS can be replicated using the same low-tech hoaxing methods as Gordon’s previous work. These features arise as unintended consequences of the technology being used, which produces statistical regularities as unplanned but inevitable side-effects.

Taken together, these two articles show that the key unusual features of the Voynich Manuscript can be explained as the products of a low-tech mechanism for producing meaningless gibberish.

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Catastrophic success

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, you know a concept, but don’t know a name for it. I’m grateful to Colin Rigby for introducing me to a name for this article’s topic, namely catastrophic success.

It’s a concept that’s been around for a long time, in fields as varied as business planning and the original Conan the Barbarian movie. It’s simple, so this will be a short article, but it’s a very powerful concept, and well worth knowing about.

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