Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thinking Fast and Slow

Quite a few books have appeared recently examining the relative merits of rational and “gut” thinking, notably Mathew Gladwell’s Blink and Daniel Kahneman’s now-popular Thinking Fast and Slow.

I’m not sure that many people are aware (though the authors mentioned above probably are) that the distinctions explored in the pages of these books, with copious research results to back them up, stand in a long line of such analysis stretching back to ancient times.

Since Plato’s day philosophers have distinguished between intuitive and analytic thought, casting it in various guises, weighing the merits of each and the relationships between the two. Aristotle distinguished between several types of thinking, including know-how, practical calculation, and speculative theory; and the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume suggested that reason by itself is inert, merely serving as an aid in guiding the passions toward their objectives.

Daniel Kahneman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow, seeks to upend the position, long held by economists, that when people make decisions they seek to “maximize utility.” He suggests that the path people commonly take to the decisions they make is a lot more irrational than that.

It might be worth pointing out here that such a scheme presumes that utility is the only thing worth seeking in life—any other objective must therefore be considered “irrational.” This assumption is hardly tenable. It would be a mistake, for example, to describe it as “irrational” when a woman lights a cigar with a twenty dollar bill. We have no way of measuring the value of the pleasure she experiences by that act. She might have done it before and concluded that given her financial situation, the benefit was well worth the expense. In any case, there is nothing intrinsically “irrational” about it.

Among the things other than utility that drive our actions we ought to include beauty, pleasure, honor, shame, duty, curiosity, love, charity, adrenaline, and fear. These are a few of the passions Hume was talking about. It seems to me that utility would be found somewhere near the bottom of any such list. But that’s just me.

Meanwhile, few, even in the halls of academia, have ever believed in the “maximize utility” theory, I suspect. Economists have held to the doctrine, not because they thought it was true, but because to do otherwise would have deprived them of quantifiable objectives and rendered their mathematical models worthless. And that would have threatened their livelihoods—and also their self-esteem.

I haven’t read Kahneman’s book—it’s far too long, and even brief reviews, without meaning to, expose errors in thinking that an unkind critic might describe as juvenile. Chief among these is the tendency to equate “useful” with “rational” and “rational” with good, all other objectives and modes of thought being construed as forms of “error” and “mistake.”

We might shed some light on this issue, I think, by setting rationality in opposition to three different alternative “modes” of thought—the irrational, the instinctive, and the intuitive.

Everyone knows what irrational behavior is. If you start doing cartwheels in church or taking off your pants at the baseball game, the men in the white suits will soon be on the way.

We do lots of things instinctively, without really thinking about them. Habits might also fall into this category. Our autonomic nervous system ought also to be included. For example, we don’t have to ponder the choice, Hamlet-like—“to breathe, or not to breathe”—before every breath we take. Yet no one would argue that breathing is “irrational.”

Intuition is the most interesting of the three alternatives to rationality mentioned above. An intuition is a flash of insight, on the order of “Boy, it’s a beautiful morning,” or “If I simply removed that drain pipe over the screen door, the problem would be solved.” Intuitions can be practical, but the most interesting and valuable ones are often aesthetic. Intuitions, like instincts, come out of nowhere, but unlike instincts, which tend to be sub-conscious and repetitive, like reflexes, intuitions bring new concepts, combinations, and judgments to consciousness and to life.

It would be possible for a student of music to study Bach’s Art of Fugue for months, for example, drawing out every relationship and nuance, without ever really “hearing” the music. We understand musical relationships only in the act of hearing and appreciating them. The act is intuitive.

The fanciful metaphors we meet up with in poetry, and even the weighty judgments of historians, are rooted in intuition.

Kahneman does follow in the footsteps of tradition in positing two quite different ways we approach experience. He calls them, rather unimaginatively, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast and intuitive. It uses association and metaphor to draw a quick sketch of a given event or situation. System 2 is the process by which we analyze our intuitions to arrive at a rational plan of action. System 2 is plodding, analytical, and deliberate.

But according to Kahneman, System 2 tends toward laziness. It tires easily, and often ends by acquiescing to the brisk but unreliable vision of System 1 without scrutinizing it much. (I might also add, though I don’t know if Kahnemen does, that System 2 often draws its “reasons” from social convention, rather than from its own insights and intuitions.)

“Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is,” Kahneman writes, “the automatic System 1 is the hero of this book.”

Well, does it really take 500 pages to say, “Trust your intuition”? The real message might, perhaps, be more along these lines: Try to be clear about what the intuitions and desires are that underlie your actions, and also scrutinize the chains of reasoning that guide the means you adopt to satisfy those desires.

As an aside, let me add that to a large degree, our intuitions and insights are both pleasurable and valuable in themselves. "Rational thought" is not required to draw nourishment from them.

Kahneman enters into an unusually egregious line of reasoning himself when he introduces the “Linda” experiment. Participants were introduced to an imaginary woman named Linda, who is very bright and deeply concerned with social justice issues. The participants were then asked which was more probable: (1) Linda is a bank teller. Or (2) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. Most participants chose the second alternative, though it happens to be a subset of the first, and would therefore ipso facto be less probable.

Kahneman considers this a case of lazy System 2 thinking, in which the listener follows the logic of a coherent narrative rather than sticking to the logic of the facts. That isn’t true. Listeners who chose option 2 actually did more work that necessary to answer the question, presuming that because they’d been informed of the woman’s background, that information would be relevant to the question; they also reasoned that because both options involved bank tellers, the distinction being made was between bank tellers who weren’t feminists and those who were.

In effect, the participants were being tricked by their interlocutors through the inclusion of irrelevant information. This has nothing to do with system thinking, and everything to do with widely-held assumptions about honesty, truthfulness, and trust. Academic logicians may chuckle with glee at the results produced by such faux-problems, but I suspect a judge in a court of law would look at the matter in a different and more complex light.

On the other hand, there is truth to Kahneman’s suggestion that we’re often misled by false assumptions, often fed to us by advertisers…and economists. One of the worst in recent times has been the notion that paying interest is good—because you can deduct it from your taxes!

Among the cognitive “biases” Kahneman examines is a deeply rooted optimism that drives many people to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the cost of things. He reports that Americans who remodel their kitchens end up spending more than twice as much, on average, as they originally intended.

Once again, I believe we may have wandered into the realm of honesty, truthfulness, and trust, this time with regard to contractors. Yet I hardly think optimism can be considered a bias in any case. Rather, it’s a tendency to forge ahead, prepared to face whatever consequences may ensue without necessarily assuming the worst from the get go. It might even be argued that “optimism” is a shallow concept devised by ostensibly clever people who are cowardly by nature and have never really learned how to live.

Kahneman has some interesting things to say about happiness—once again, ala Hume, a quality or feeling toward which we often bend all the reasoning powers at our disposal. Recent studies have revealed that the way we remember events is more important than how we experience them, and that the intensity of happy times counts for more, in retrospect, than its duration.

I have experienced a good deal of happiness of late, not reading Kahneman’s book. When I consider lifetimes of scientific endeavor spent trying to “discover” reasons and proofs in the lab for things that are intuitively obvious to most thinking adults, I often think of Moliere.

Don’t ask me why. I’d just make up some reason.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Thoreau You Don’t Know

To some, Thoreau is an icon of environmental insight and political conscience, a keen social critic, and a paragon of self-sufficiency. To others, he’s a fraud, a misanthrope, and a dour, holier-than-thou stick-in-the-mud who took his washing to be done at his mother’s house, week after week, that is, when he wasn’t actually living there.

To me, Thoreau has been a hero of sorts since high school, though at a certain point it occurred to me that I had never actually read Walden, but only thumbed through a few pages here and there. I believe I was more profoundly influenced by the Sierra Club book of photos by Eliot Porter with quotes from Thoreau called In Wildness is the Preservation of the Earth. Even today, when I come upon an exceedingly beautiful, densely textured forest scene, not classically picturesque but bristling with subtle patterns and shafts of light, I say to myself, "Now there’s an Eliot Porter scene.”

The only book by Thoreau that I ever read cover-to-cover was Cape Cod. I liked it better than Walden; it held my interest. But it was obvious to me from the first that Thoreau was far better with words than the common run of mid-nineteenth century prose stylists. Clear, evocative, riddled with irony and humor in the best “modern” style.

Yet in recent years, bringing a yellowing, mass-market-size Harper paperback with me into the woods, Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, I found myself quickly growing tired of Thoreau’s gripes against his fellow man. His contrary turns of phrase struck me as too often merely facile or clever, rather than genuinely insightful.

In his recent biography, The Thoreau You Don’t Know, Robert Sullivan has done a good job of reminding us of the Thoreau we once admired. He paints a portrait of a joking, musical, character, who not only criticized those of his neighbors who were living “lives of quiet desperation,” but also expressed admiration for the ones who knew their land well and managed it wisely.

Far from being a misanthrope, Thoreau hosted an annual, and very popular, watermelon festival, surveyed most of the area around Concord at one time or another, gave lectures, managed the family pencil-factory, and in general, led a very town-centered life, even when he was conducting his experiment at Walden Pond—a twenty-minute walk from Concord.

Against the famous remark that “in wildness is the preservation of the earth,” Sullivan counterpoises another that he finds more characteristic of Thoreau’s own life. “The wilderness is simple, almost to barrenness. The partially cultivated country it is which chiefly has inspired, and will continue to inspire, the strains of poets, such as compose the mass of any literature.”

But as he stresses in the introduction, Sullivan’s book is less a biography of Thoreau than a “look at the times and the conditions under which he wrote, and a look at him as a free-lance writer…” This turns out to be a fruitful perspective. The Panic of 1837, the vast influx of Irish immigrants, the resultant increase in domestic servants, and the rising popularity of Martha-Stewart-like home decoration and management books, are all phenomena that Thoreau was well aware of and often refers to obliquely in his work.

At a distance of almost two centuries, it’s sometimes difficult for the modern reader to discern when Thoreau is being serious and when he’s gently lampooning a fashion or attitude of his own day. (Scholars often say the same thing about Socrates.)

Along the way, Sullivan offers shrewd portraits of Thoreau’s parents, his brother John, and lifelong friends including Emerson, Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and Ellery Channing. He describes Thoreau’s growth as a free lance writer as perhaps only a fellow free-lancer could. Nor does he neglect to explore at length Thoreau’s approach to observing “nature,” which seems to be as much about ice-cutters and woodchoppers and farmers as it is about hazelnuts and northern lights.

As we approach the end of the book, we feel we’ve been thoroughly exposed to Thoreau’s cranky side, though his superlative awareness of everything going on in his neighborhood shines through. In the last chapter Sullivan decides to walk the short distance from downtown Concord to Walden Pond, where the plaque reads, in part: “…I did not wish to live what was not life, Living is so dear.”

Sullivan has succeeded in bringing the man’s liveliest moments to the surface. It’s a Thoreau I once knew, but had somehow forgot.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Seventeen Miles on the Rum River

We had no idea what to expect, except what could be gleaned from a glance down the river from the window of a fast-moving car on Highway 169. But we wanted to get to know the Rum River better.

Internet references were few, and all but worthless. The DNR's map of the river was better, giving accurate mileage and a few comments about hazards, camp sites, and points of public access. The Falcon guide Paddling Minnesota was perfunctory. Thomas Waters’ classic The Streams of Rivers of Minnesota was useful to a degree, though it came out in 1977, and some things have changed.
For example, Waters writes that the stretch between Onamia and Princeton “is not wild—it is crossed by many roads…The riverside is not heavily wooded, and much of the area is in pasture or open fields.”

Well, the seventeen-mile stretch we canoed Sunday morning is entirely wooded. And discounting three or four bridges and the mile or so just before you arrive in Milaca, it’s entirely wild. During the first two hours we were on the water we saw nary a person, a bridge, a pasture, or any other sign of human activity, aside from three or four widely spaced cabins, all of which we wanted to inherit from some rich uncle. In fact, we didn’t even see a place where it was inviting to come ashore and ponder the beauty of the passing scene.

When Louis Hennepin negotiated the river in 1680 it could hardly have been more “wild.”

As for the water level, it was high, and that was a good thing. The official DNR reading available online was from May 8—not worth much, considering all the rain that’s been falling in the central part of the state recently. We learned more from the attendant at the wayside rest on Highway 169 fifteen miles north of Milaca, where a path down the hill through the woods led to the river.

“The river’s high, so you shouldn’t bang around too much,” he told us. “Some people in kayaks went down yesterday.”

When I suggested a three-hour transit time to Milaca he hesitated, then nodded his head in a sort of doubtful affirmation.

Waters writes of this stretch of river, “Upstream from Milaca, the Rum is clear so that canoeing or wading is a real visual pleasure.” That much is true. It might have been nice of him to add, “Most of this stretch is rapids.”

Now, there are rapids and there are rapids. Not much of the river we ran was “white-water” per se. But here’s the way I look at it. On many mid-sized rivers, you mostly have the freedom to drift, springing to attention occasionally when the sound of riffling water approaches. On the upper Rum River, you’re moving pretty fast, and there are very few stretches when you aren’t looking ahead, charting your immediate path, looking for Vs and protruding rocks, or actually negotiating a Class One rapids.

The hazards are ever-present, and the swift current is relentlessly carrying you toward or through them. There is little time to pause or ponder anything.

None of these rapids are terribly dangerous or difficult. But what you begin to notice is not the rapids, but the rare two-minute interludes when the river ahead looks calm and you can relax, extract the camera from its plastic bag and take a picture, or look at the map. Such moments are few and far between.

Waters tells us that the Rum River drops 145 feet during its 140-mile journey from Mille Lacs to the Mississippi, and half of that descent is along the 30-mile stretch from Onemia and Milaca.

Along this stretch I suspect the Rum is seldom more than five feet deep, and there’s little danger of serious injury. What you want to avoid is hitting an isolated rock square-on in the midst of a rapid, spinning sideways in the swift current, and dumping.

Even this could well end up being fun—we were both wearing swimming suits, after all—except for the camera and binoculars we’d brought along, and the straps and foam cushions required to fasten the canoe to the shuttle-car once we reach the end of the journey. I’d really hate to see that stuff go floating off …

During our journey we were accompanied by an osprey that rose from the overhanging branches and flapped away downstream, time and again. We also saw several bald eagles at very close range; a few chattering kingfishers; and about a thousand cedar waxwings darting out and back across the river.

We’d been paddling for two hours through the gorgeous, silent hardwood forest before we found a decent place to stop. It was a rocky spit about two feet across and ten feet wide. Hallelujah!

Hilary went swimming. I ate some cherries and drank a can of lemonade. Then we watched two iridescent green damsel-flies chase one another back and forth across our “beach.” It was a lovely sight—one of those little moments when you say to yourself: “I’ve never seen anything remotely like that before.” (Might these have been the Ebony Jewelwing?)

Another thing you notice is that some rapids have lots of water in them, and though everything’s moving very fast, you feel that if you choose the best channel you’re going to whisk right through. Then again, other rapids give off a chattering sound that tells you they’re shallow and full of rattling rocks and no matter which path you take, you’re going to bottom out once or twice before you get to the bottom. As you race through these riffles you sing the praises of the Grumman Aircraft Corporation. (They made the indestructible aluminum canoe you’re sitting in.)

For quite a while we kept an eye out for the Old Whitney Log Dam Site, which was marked on the DNR map, but once we started to hear the traffic on 169 again we knew we’d long since passed it. By that time our map had gotten soaked and stained and I wasn’t paying much attention anyway.

Meanwhile, the river had developed the habit of separating into two or three strands; there were more backwaters and side channels—maybe a cuckoo bird lurking?—some of them carrying a good share of the river’s flow and thus rendering the “main” channel that much shallower.

During the first half of our trip, we bottomed out five times—during the second half, maybe fifteen times.

On only one occasion did we hit a rock in the middle of a rapid and spin sideways. Too deep for me to disembark and “steady” the craft, our only hope at that point was to push off the rock and complete the spin. As a result, we found ourselves going backward down the rapids! This called for a further pirouette, which we executed deftly, brushing a few more rocks broadside in the process but completing our 360 degree circuit without going over. Bravo!

The temperature had risen to above 90 degrees and I was getting tired when we spotted a communications tower above the trees ahead of us. Next the manicured fairways of a golf course came into view. Then teens in swimsuits appeared riding turquoise inner-tubes—indolent slackers a third our age who sometimes inadvertently clogged the best lanes through the ever-threatening rapids.

Then I saw the lights to the Milaca baseball field and I knew we were only a few minutes from the car. Seventeen miles. Four hours. (In case anyone’s wondering how long it really takes, the way I was until today.) A beautiful and adventurous pre-4th of July event.

Heading down the Rum River, we had no idea what to expect. All we knew was that once we set off, there was no way to turn back.

I find it difficult to imagine the Dakota, the Ojibwe, or anyone else, taking this stretch of the Rum River upstream. But of course they did. In his memoir recounting events that took place three centuries and more ago, Louis Hennepin recalls: “these Indians sometimes make 30 or 40 leagues (120 miles) by water when they are hurried by war or wish to overtake enemies.”