Grand Unified Theories

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.

That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.

This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.

bannerv2Sources for original images are given at the end of this article

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Doomsday predictions as expressive behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

There was a classic article on Pharyngula recently about a group who donned bright yellow t-shirts to announce the imminent end of the world. It’s far from the first time that this announcement has been made; it’s probably not going to be the last.

So why do people keep making this announcement? Do they really believe that this time is going to be different, or is there something deeper going on?

As you might have guessed, usually there’s something deeper going on. The same underlying principle crops up in a wide range of forms, and is particularly prominent in politics, where it can cause a lot of problems.

The explanation begins with a topic that we discussed recently on this blog, namely expressive behaviour. It then moves on to systems theory, luxury, sex and power. The end of the world is a fine, rich topic…

end of world

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2015/10/07/they-had-t-shirts-made/

Originally posted on: http://www.rifuture.org/world-ends-today-see-you-tomorrow.html

(Image used under fair use terms, as part of an academic article about background theory.)

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Instrumental and expressive behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

There are a lot of very useful concepts which are nowhere near as widely known as they should be.

One of these is the concept of instrumental versus expressive behaviour. It makes sense of a broad range of human behaviour which would otherwise look baffling. It explains a lot of the things that politicians do, and a lot of the ways that people act in stressful situations, for instance.

This article gives a short overview of the traditional version of the concept, and describes how a richer form of knowledge representation can make the concept even more useful.

Humans being expressive and instrumental

bannerv1Sources for original images are given at the end of this article

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Truthiness, scienciness, and product success

By Gordon Rugg

This is a Tempest Prognosticator.

800px-Tempest_Prognosticator“Tempest Prognosticator” by Badobadop – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tempest_Prognosticator.jpg#/media/File:Tempest_Prognosticator.jpg

It’s a splendid example of nineteenth century ingenuity, right down to the name. What does it do? It’s intended to let you know if a storm is approaching. The way it does this is as wonderfully nineteenth century as the name. The Prognosticator is operated by twelve leeches, each of which lives in a bottle. When storms are approaching, the leeches become agitated, and climb out of the bottle. When they climb out, they disturb a piece of whalebone, which activates a bell. The more serious the risk of storm, the more leeches climb out, and the more bells ring.

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Death, Tarot, Rorschach, scripts, and why economies crash

By Gordon Rugg

The best examples of powerful principles often come from unexpected places.

Today’s article is one of those cases. It’s about why it often makes excellent sense to use a particular method, even when you’re fully aware that the method doesn’t work as advertised on the box, or doesn’t work at all.

It’s a story that starts with one of the most widely misunderstood cards in the Tarot pack. The story also features some old friends, in the form of game theory, pattern matching and script theory. It ends, I hope, with a richer understanding of why human behaviour often makes much more sense when you look at the deep underlying regularities, rather than at the surface appearances.

So, we’ll start with Tarot cards. A surprisingly high proportion of people who use Tarot packs will cheerfully tell you that the cards have no mystical powers. Why would anyone use Tarot cards if they don’t have those powers? There are actually some very good reasons.

bannerv2Sources for images are given at the end of this article

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The Uncanny Valley, Proust, Segways and the living dead

By Gordon Rugg

I recently visited my old university town after being away for more than twenty years. It was a very unsettling experience; the town I saw was very different from the one I remembered, and those differences stirred up a lot of emotional turmoil.

I had uncomfortable visions of spending years coming to terms with those feelings, and with the deep subconscious issues that would probably be involved, about memories of my past and of days that could never be re-lived. It had all the makings of a great novel, until I mentioned it to Sue Gerrard, who said that more likely it was just a case of the uncanny valley.

She was right.

And that is why I’m now unlikely to write this century’s answer to À la recherche du temps perdu.

So what is the uncanny valley anyway, and why does it mean that the world will have to settle for this blog article instead of a literary masterpiece? The answer takes us through a surprisingly broad range of phenomena that individually look difficult to explain, but which might be explicable together as the effects of some simple cognitive processes.

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Images from Wikipedia; links are at the end of this article.

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Passive ignorance, active ignorance, and why students don’t learn

By Gordon Rugg

Why don’t students learn?

It looks like a simple question, which ought to have a simple answer. In reality, understanding why students don’t learn takes us into concepts such as passive ignorance, active ignorance, systems theory, belief systems, naïve physics and cognitive biases. In this article, I’ll skim through some key concepts, to set the scene for a series of later articles that go into more depth about those concepts and about their implications both for education and for other fields.

bannerBucket image copyleft Hyde & Rugg, 2014; other images from Wikimedia (details at the end of this article)

 

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