The Wisdom of Crowds – and Empathy

Hay Festival Downtown

Hay-on-Wye, Wales, May 2014

It was an interesting day this past Saturday.  It was WSU graduation.   Graduation for the longest time has always been held in Beasley Coliseum, the big arena on campus. And while I consistently attend the pre-ceremony line-up, I’m not much on going in and sitting in one of those tiny chairs for two hours.

As often happens in Pullman in May, it was cold and raining.  Not fun.  Usually, if the weather is good (meaning no rain, but usually cold) students line up outside, underneath the various disciplinary signs, and file in during the graduation procession, “Pomp and Circumstance” playing while the announcer declares the majors.  If it is raining, it’s a little more chaotic, but the same signs are used to organize students around the enclosed outside ring of the stadium.

This time, there were no signs. And not surprisingly, there was chaos. Because there was no directed ‘binning’ of graduates, everyone attempted to head for the main entrance.  It was what I call classic ‘crowding’ behavior, where people pressed toward the main entrance in the arena, pushing and shoving toward the one set of open doors, as well as adjacent to where students go to get their name cards, so when they show up on the big view screen above the crowd when they get their degree, their name is pronounced.  It was nuts.

I attempted to corral all the students that I knew — my goal, since I’m their capstone instructor, and the only faculty member that can consistently recite all their names — and hold them back from the rush.  It was unclear how there would be the standard line-up for the procession, but there was going to be no joy by pressing up closer to the main doors, which were also feeling an influx from the main outside doors to the Coliseum.

I found it was amazingly difficult to get the students that even knew me to hold back.  It was like there was an all-encompassing force driving those kids up where everyone else was.  Though no stampede occurred, you can see how people can easily get trampled in such events.  “This is not a wise crowd,” I thought.  Which got me thinking back to that catchphrase, which then led me to research who mainstreamed the popular phrase into the contemporary lexicon.

The answer is James Surowiecki, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, The Wisdom of Crowds.  Staring at the cover on, I think I’ve read it.  But I can’t remember!  Regardless, the Publisher’s Weekly review on the page sums up the four conditions Surowiecki lays out:

“Wise crowds” need (1) diversity of opinion; (2) independence of members from one another; (3) decentralization; and (4) a good method for aggregating opinions. The diversity brings in different information; independence keeps people from being swayed by a single opinion leader; people’s errors balance each other out; and including all opinions guarantees that the results are “smarter” than if a single expert had been in charge.

Not surprisingly, since according to Publisher’s Weekly, the book is based on behavioral economics and game theory,  there’s no mention of empathy.  Instead, we get that surface-level description of dynamics (back in Mario Kart again!) instead of a deeper understanding.  But it’s actually a pretty reasonable one.  We covered the value of diversity of opinion when we looked at Scott Page’s work.  Independence of members from one another is a little more challenging, because higher levels of empathy do indeed require differentiation of self from others.  At the same time, it’s a little tricky because this factor might also imply a lack of connected communication.  But when added to #3 — decentralization — now that’s an implied diss on the old Authoritarian v-Meme.  Not too bad.  And lastly, a good method for aggregating opinions — well, ‘good’ is a judgment word.  But we could also rephrase this to mapping to whatever knowledge structure we’re attempting to use.

That’s a little more tricky.  Good in the sense of ‘how many jelly beans in a jar’ would map down to the Authoritarian v-Meme fragmented information knowledge structure, and mixed up with the other three conditions, would imply an independent guess of said number of jelly beans. You would want as many people guessing how many jelly beans as possible, with some nod to ‘grounding’ — that people had some independent, calibrated ability to sense or measure the jelly beans in a jar optically.  For higher level knowledge structures (algorithms, heuristics, and multiple heuristics) you’re going to have to have a more complex process of building shared coherence.

These happen, of course, in all sorts of design reviews, codes and standards panels and so forth.  Though we don’t think of existence of current processes that produce all sorts of knowledge as collective intelligence exercises, they are.  And they exist at all levels.  Our world runs, quite literally on codes and standards that are created by expert staffs from all sorts of industries, for all sorts of situations.  Besides the ones for roads and buildings, which most of us are familiar with, there are codes and standards for literally every part of every operation in high-throughput manufacturing environments.  My students once did a project with one of my collaborators at an oil refinery on welding an external, strengthening patch onto a gas pipeline while gas was flowing! Needless to say, the algorithmic/Legalistic v-Meme part of the wisdom of crowds is well-covered.  Considering how many bridges collapse in the U.S., algorithmically based collective intelligence is doing pretty well.

We can keep going on up the Spiral in our Theory of Empathetic Evolution, and get guidance on Surowiecki’s four points.  Such collective, error-correcting behavior becomes emergent when one considers that many of the various institutions are already ‘good’ because of some level of mapping to those four principles.  OpenIDEO is most definitely a collective intelligence exercise that maps in the Theory of Empathetic Evolution’s Communitarian v-Meme.  And it also follows Surowiecki’s direction for diversity of voices, attempting to get community, as well as engineering representatives, and considering that it is crowd-sourced, it has decentralization and independence of voices as part of the mix.  That’s definitely going to be a solid approach for the neglected and unknown environments and the design solutions they demand, and the solution diversity contained therein. OpenIDEO ran a design collaboration recently on helping people from falling down less.  Considering the breadth of that problem space — utterly massive — it makes sense to go with the collective.

Surowiecki didn’t have access to our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  Still, I think that his four points are valid excursions from Authority-based/Expert thinking for a large number of problems.  I’d argue, though, that understanding the underlying knowledge structure is a better bellwether of whether to poll a ton of people, vs. listen to a couple of smart guys or gals. And maybe the real key to whether you should trust experts or not, if we were to sum up in one fell swoop, is towards identification of the amount of metacognition and prediction of unknowns.  The short version — if it’s already known, your expert is your best bet.  But if there’s enough gray in the mix, go with the crowd.  Like “what’s the best pizza place in New York City?” Food critics, move aside for Yelp.

But back to that crushing crowd at graduation, indulging deeply in profound mirroring behavior, all headed toward oblivion in the nonexistent line-up for graduation.  Maybe the other lesson is to know when NOT to listen to the crowd.  And that’s pretty obvious — when it’s acting impulsively, with little or no empathy. Wisdom in crowds maps to wisdom in people and social systems in general.  And with wisdom, the more connection the better.  Empathy matters.


Quickie Post — Aliens are Not Gonna Eat Us (again)

Bird of Paradise Plant

Hawaii, outside Hilo, August 2014

One of the easiest ways to evaluate someone Value Memes (v-Memes) is to ask them the old ‘what would aliens be like’ question.  We tend to think that the best people to ask that question to and get a real answer are scientists.  Which, on the surface, seems like a good idea — at least if you don’t understand our Theory of Empathetic Evolution.  If you’ll recall, you’ll remember, though, that scientists are mostly organized down in the lower v-Memes, and most are algorithmic processors with mediocre metacognition — that ability to know what they don’t know.  Exobiology, the study of what life might be on other planets, is in its profoundly nascent beginnings.  Yet I wouldn’t be surprised (I’ll be long dead, of course) that when we finally get off this planet, we’ll find that the physical processes for creating life are largely captured here on Earth, give or take a few molecules.  The emergence of life is a low-probability event, and we DO have a canonical set of planets right here that we can investigate.  Barring discoveries of rudimentary life on Mars, or the moons of Saturn (think Titan) it’s just hard to get the scaled fractal structures life seems to need, with the physics present on most of the planets in the universe.  Things are just too energetically violent.

That doesn’t mean that extraterrestrial life doesn’t exist.  Billions of galaxies, and potentially billions of universes, mean that E.T. probably is out there to Phone Home.  And I still maintain that the laws of information creation ARE constant across at least our home universe.  Which means that everything I wrote in this post is likely true.

Then there’s the movie problem with all our understanding of extraterrestrial life.  I’ve already ranted about the aliens-gonna-eat-us crowd.  But even when we stray from that, we don’t do so well.  Take the latest cinema offerings.  The biggest thing that gets me about recent movies like Arrival is that the aliens, upon crossing some major interstellar void, when they show up, they haven’t done their homework on how to talk to us.  And it’s us with flashcards that have to school our dum-dum E.T. pals on “me-man, you-woman” in order to teach them how to talk with us.  As if they didn’t have anything better to ponder while experiencing the effects of relativity hurling across the universe.

Well, now there’s a new book out, compiled by a quantum theory specialist, about what scientists think about aliens eating us.  (Spoiler alert — they won’t, because we’re not made from constructive amino acids.  Is that the only constraining force on us?  If so, your neighbor better watch out or he’ll end up on the grill!)  It’s all in good fun, and I don’t want to be too hard on the editors, but it really shows our static view toward social evolution.  The reasons are all like this — no animate life, because robots will live forever (people espousing these kinds of positions have never worked with robots!) , no theft of raw materials makes sense, and so on.

How do we get social evolution on the mental radar screens of folks, and the implications of Conway’s Law on technological development?  There are days I just scratch my head. Maybe it’s time for a little Back to the Future?  Arthur C. Clarke, where are you when we need you?  With maybe just a little less control in your make-up?

Does the American Finance Community Really Want Greater Productivity? Or do They Just Want Folks to Be Miserable?


Debugging the Executive Autopilot (again).  Brenna Meyer photo, April 2017

One of the challenges in evolving our society is understanding the role that money and its distribution play in moving us up or down the Spiral and Empathy ladder. Unlike the commonly held belief, money isn’t everything.  But money is more real, as part of deeper social dynamics, than almost any other artifact of our surface-level perception of actions.  It’s not all Mario Kart.  Money is our contemporary stand-in for energetics, and if you understand developed empathy (and the larger information coherence it brings) as being a function of larger spatial, temporal and energetic scales, then money matters.  It’s a whole lot easier to start on the path to global empathy when you can actually not have to worry where your next meal is coming from, or can afford some leisure and travel.  You can indeed get to greater enlightenment by meditation and hanging out with people in your home town.  But it’s just not as likely.

Plus, money at its most basic level matters as far as booting people up into higher cognitive space and v-Memes, where it matters less as part of one’s Survival v-Meme sense.  I’m not the first person to say this, and I think Daniel Pink’s video on motivation is very strong for understanding the v-Memes in the Performance/Communitarian range.  See:

The short version is this:  if you want innovation and creativity, you and your company are in a much better place v-Meme-wise if you’re up in the land of independently generated, trust-based relationships and the multiple solutions these bring.  And that means not worrying constantly about money.  Or rather, having enough money to meet both survival and status needs means you can focus on goals and community.

And though it may be hard to believe, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in.  A huge part of our current economic malaise is based on the idea that creativity is the province of the individual genius, and only a few sectors — mostly tech — with a focus on gadget-izing the world, absolutely need it. That means we’re ignoring the potential for economic return for creativity and individualization in, according to the US government, ~ 80% of the economy.  It’s just nuts.


A worrying precedent is the fact that the drift in income between rich and poor in the U.S. continues to grow, as can be seen by this short video.  This creates conditions for even less empathy, and more commodification of poorer individuals, which then leads to even less creativity, progress in our society, and social evolution.

The lack of money sinks more Americans down deeper into conditions that put folks down into the Survival v-Meme, with its incumbent peril for trauma, which then creates more traumatized children, who both experience abuse as well as receive transferred epigenetic markers that will decrease their ability to be resilient in the face of a rapidly changing economy and world information stage.  And it’s not just the U.S.  Here’s another video about the gap, and how debt service makes things worse, that highlights this as a global problem.

Why do the folks in finance believe that paying service workers of any stripe a decent wage is such a bad thing?  Maybe, because of their own lack of empathy, they just can’t see it.  That leads to a lack of recognition of empathy and its actual monetizing value, maybe?  What can we learn about them and how they see the world from their public statements and practices?

This article on American Airlines, at, by Matt Yglesias, is a good start.  The short version, according to the article is this:  American decided to preemptively raise salaries for its pilots and flight attendants, making that judgment based on parity pay at American’s largest competitors, Delta and United. The pilot’s and flight attendants had no way to force a pay raise, since the contract was not going to be up for two years.  And since American had returned to profitability from bankruptcy, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker called the raises an investment in the company that will lead to better service by employees and, eventually, higher revenue.

Wall Street and the analysts from the various financial analysts were crying foul, saying that any money should go to the investment class first.  JP Morgan’s Jamie Baker (from the article) had this to say:

“We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups,” he wrote. It “establishes a worrying precedent, in our view, both for American and the industry.”

What’s interesting about the Wall Street commentary in the article is how consistently depressing and Authoritarian v-Meme it is, even in the face of short-term consequences to American if they had not raised salaries.  There’s a pilot shortage going on and had American not taken the pay action, they likely would have had to deal with empty pilot slots as pilots left to American’s primary competitors. And Wall Street’s outrage about American’s pay raise even ended up hurting Wall Street, with all airline stocks tumbling as Wall Street punished the sector for the pay raise.

What really needs to change in this picture is the Authoritarian, status-based thinking on Wall Street.  In classic Principle of Reinforcement mode, the folks on Wall Street, having lost any real grounding in what money actually means energetically, assert primacy and status over each other through numbers in bank accounts.  Think statements about profitability don’t have any power and control stuff in them?  This then leads to other connected behaviors in the v-Meme, such as conflict as a primary driver of behavior (let’s just let those unions strike if they want more money!) More maladjusted, egocentric behavior, followed by empathy-deficit victimization ranting — this one from Yglesias’ piece — (“This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again,” wrote Citi analyst Kevin Crissey in a widely circulated note.” “Shareholders get leftovers.”)  are just what goes along with all the other stuff. And true to form, we cannot expect that particular crowd to engage in anything resemble consequential thinking.  What’s going to happen if present trends continue?  Who cares?

The key thing here is to realize that it is fundamentally self-destructive for all concerned, including the investment class.  When Authoritarianism was the dominant v-Meme of the day, everyone, including the rich, had a whole lot less.  In the case of the airline case, it’s actually stunning.  Poor pay for pilots has been an issue for a while.  And while it may be true that captains piloting the heavies across the oceans make a good wage, regional carrier wages are terrible.  The longer-term consequences of the pilot shortage may be that parts of the country lose their air service, which has to mean less opportunity to make money for investors once again.  This from Aviation Week:

Too few bright-eyed students are opting for careers in the cockpit, despite the promise of readily available jobs. The crunch is already hitting regional airlines, which are losing increasing numbers of pilots to the major carriers and are not able to fill new pilot training classes. In some cases, regionals have had to park aircraft for lack of pilots. This should be a concern beyond the aviation world, too. The impact might lead to some smaller U.S. cities losing their air service. The dearth of pilots is a problem in other parts of the world, too, though the causes and potential cures will vary by country and region.”

If there’s an answer to this, it’s that the progressive investment class has to use their authority to counter the insistent, relationally disruptive message from the current batch on Wall Street.  We have to change the mental models of productivity and creativity to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.  That message from the progressive venture capitalists will still have to be Authority-based, because rationality is not going to win the argument in this political climate.  There are too many self-reinforcing, negative messages. Solutions will emerge, once we change hearts, minds, and v-Memes.

But they need to do it now.  Because commercial aviation is not the only sector where the group in charge is going to impoverish us, and create an even larger class of traumatized individuals.  And digging out of that hole may lead to far worse consequences than paying a living wage to pilots and flight attendants.

Quickie Post — Remembering Things

SulaimanUAVSulaiman and the UAV — Not pretty, but this thing with a motor hauls ass — 55 mph.  Photo credit Brenna Meyer, another student.  We went flying two days ago.

There’s a short piece that came across my news feed that adds a nice chunk of evidence to the Neurobiology of Education and Critical Thinking post.  Researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, looking at memorization and retention, said this from this piece by Drake Baer:

“Exposure to information doesn’t ensure learning,” says Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin. As he tells the Irish Times, it’s all about forcing yourself to recall what you’ve read or heard — “retrieval has a greater effect,” he says.

That means asking yourself questions about whatever it is you’re studying, whether it’s materials for a big meeting or presentation or notes for an exam. Flashcards, those standbys of overachievers everywhere, are effective for much the same reason: They force you to recall and thereby engage mentally with information. Rereading doesn’t put the same cognitive demands on your brain, so you don’t learn as much.

Your brain remembers things better when it’s been taught that what you’re looking at is important to your survival, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, once explained to me. How do you convince your brain that something is critical to your very existence? You expend mental energy on it.

The process of reflection, which basically forces one to create an autobiographical, holistic narrative, moves the knowledge from the left side of the neocortex, to the right side, and through the hippocampus, as we’ve covered before.  Of course.  It’s the way the brain works.  Here’s the figure again to save you click, though if you haven’t read Neurobiology of Education and Critical ThinkingI highly recommend it.

Modified Siegel BrainAnd as far as that Survival v-Meme comment, there’s also no question that getting down to the Survival level can create a state of maximum neuroplasticity.  Think of it as your brain going full Yoda on you:

The reason I bold-faced the “can” above is for reasons.  Too much Survival v-Meme, too fast, otherwise known as trauma, can physically cause brain damage, which then has to be unpacked through a much larger process.  This paper here is from 2001, but there is a fair amount of research in the trauma literature that shows the result.  What’s even more fascinating (I just found this paper today) is the result of this paper in particular — that trauma can cause reduction in the size of the corpus callosum, the pathway between the left and right hemisphere of the brain, which then lines up with the disassociation trauma brings, which is then really a way of saying ‘explicit knowledge is piling up on the left side of the brain’ and doesn’t have time to make it to the right.

And then THIS lends strength to the argument that childhood trauma can be the trigger that leads to personality disorders and deficits of empathy in adults.  This was supposed to be a quickie post, but here’s Baron-Cohen’s RSA presentation.  It IS interesting that when one develops a reasonably accurate, functional model of the brain, lots of interesting things start dropping out as insights.

So — the short takeaway is there are two roads to learning things quickly — the high road and the low road.  The high road involves reflection and creation of your own autobiographical, holistic narratives, with a definite meditative flair.  The second involves trauma and survival, which then has to lead at some level to the same end.  Both ends of the Spiral.  Funny how that works.  And, when you add mirroring behavior (the least likely to stick, as the original piece said,) is exactly what Confucius predicted:

By three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Quickie Posts — Wealth Inequality and Thermodynamics — Brother Jake’s Insights

Bogota Che GuevaraChe Guevara grafitti, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, CO, 2014

Here’s a bang-up post by my psychonaut brother-in-arms Jake Leachman about wealth inequality, with an awesome couple of pull quotes below.

Professor Schiedel has identified four primary mechanisms for dramatic wealth redistribution in human history and his analysis is sobering:

  1. Mass-mobilization warfare (Think World War 2)
  2. Transformative revolutions (Think communist revolutions)
  3. State collapse (fall of the USSR)
  4. Catastrophic plagues (think Bubonic plague a.k.a. the Black Death)

All of these events resulted in a system-structural change in the cultures and an increase in empathy — the realization that we are not all that different and that indeed humanity needs humanity.

and this one:

I will argue that Professor Schiedel’s conclusions require big caveats. Like many who predict the rise and fall of civilizations (many even using thermodynamic arguments), these arguments are based on our history, not our future. As we’ve increased the resources (temperature) of civilization, we’ve awakened totally new modes of interacting and being. The average thermodynamic temperature of society has increased immensely over the last several centuries. While the modes of old are still readily accessible, modern society will change phase and interact in fundamentally different ways than societies of old.

It’s a great post.  There’s some thermo talk, but with all the hubbub about science swirling around these days, you can get some learning about thermo too!

Humanity needs humanity.  Words to live by.

Understanding our Theory of Empathetic Evolution by Observing Mario Kart

Bogota Hall

Bogota, Colombia, 2013?

One of the problems with familiarity with my own work (I am indeed aware that the reasoning, principles and evidence do come from inside my own brain!) is that I process most of my experience through the model I discuss on this blog.  It is, of course, supposed to be a Theory of Everything, which means that it can be applied to Everything.  At least in my mind.

So when I read an article such as this one (which I do recommend) about what the author calls the ‘biomedical portrait of psychiatric analysis’ — attempting to shed daylight on why most psychiatrists view psychological illness and disturbance as some individual brain level chemical imbalance, instead of the complex system of environment, experience, brain chemistry and culture it obviously is — (the author hasn’t read my blog to get the whole Theory of Everything portrait,) I intrinsically fill in the holes in the author’s reasoning with my stuff.

And therein lies the rub.  The piece is a well-reasoned, well-documented piece that moves conceptually toward a lot of my writing, of the human mind as operating in a complex system — that in this case, psychological illness isn’t just a biomedical disturbance.  It’s a combination of a larger complex of factors.  But the author is still saddled with the cultural idea of the individual as iconic, and separated from others.  Which is still far removed from the larger, easily validated reality of the individual as really just an connected, synergistic part/agent in a much larger system.  (For those new readers that get stuck on THAT thought, I’d encourage you to read this piece on solitary confinement — or what happens when you really are alone.  Not good.)

Nothing sums up the inevitability of connection like this scene from O Brother, Where Art Thou.


Getting back to the original article — the writing dwells on surface-level factors. It’s the way writing on psychology often runs.  Some researcher in the discipline sets up an experiment (often with a group of 18-22 year old college students as part of a Psych 101 class) that tests some hypothesis, often undisclosed to the experimental subjects, about how students will behave. The behavior is then statistically aggregated after some fashion, and generalized to a larger population. More recently, the inevitable TED talk is made.  This turns into a narrow, shoehorned generalization of all human behavior that is supposed to supersede all other work. To be fair, the Psychology Greats (like Freud, or Jung) attempt to get under the surface — with Freud it seems like it was all dreams and penises — but an amazing amount of work gets churned out that sports little connection to underlying systems.  And if you do manage, you have to beat that horse past death.  And then maybe someone gives you a Nobel Prize.  One of the things that’s definitely lacking — virtually none of these advances are left open-ended, even the best ones (I need to get working on that Bowen Theory piece.) When I read through even the ones that I like, I still feel like if I’d show up at their annual conference, saying ‘hey, look, I extended and enveloped this iconic work, and it fits in so well inside a larger model, but there’s still a ton of unknowns here, and a couple assumptions you made that were obviously invalid,’ I’d be the proverbial leper at the cocktail party.

If I’ve learned something writing this blog, and reading the prodigious amount of material I cite, it’s that people like their perception of whatever they deem concrete.  A simpler way of stating this might be that people like Mario Kart.  For those without children, or have hidden under a rock on a desert island for the last twenty years, or have been on an extended trip to Saturn, Mario Kart is a driving game made by Nintendo, playable on any number of game platforms.  Every kid in the universe with access to electricity and a little money has played Mario Kart.  It’s a driving game, where Mario races Luigi, Princess Peach, and probably some squid.  A screenshot is below:


Mario giving Luigi a run for his money, Mario Kart 7, from this website

And, as Wikipedia will remind you, there are a lot of versions.  If you ask people to describe the laws of physics of Mario Kart, they will inevitably describe various scenes that they watch.  I honestly haven’t played Mario Kart in three shades of forever, so I would not rank as an astute observer of the game.  But I’m sure there are Koopa shells, banana peels and such, along with Princess Peach, our evolving intrepid heroine, and Mario and Luigi, doing all sorts of stuff that can be catalogued in excruciating detail.

Now here’s the rub — if you asked a cognitive psychologist HOW Mario Kart worked, they would likely describe the game.  Mario and friends race through the countryside of the Mushroom Kingdom, around Bowser’s Castle, and so on.  There may some allusions to competitions between Wario and Mario, or some plot device around saving someone, or eating mushrooms.  There also might be some connection or interpretive allegory about Princess Peach’s role in the series, or Birdo’s occasional appearance.

And here’s the thing. From the integrated insight inside the discipline of psychology (the culture) combined with the knowledge structures produced from the social structure, which is decidedly Authoritarian/Legalistic v-Meme-centered, we’d expect mostly a fragmented description of players’ characteristics, some consultation with the Long Term magical story arc of the Mario franchise, as well as some algorithms for cause-and-effect (redeeming coins, or bopping Koopa turtles.)  If you asked a garden-variety psychologist to describe what the next level might be like, unless, of course they played the game, they’d say ‘more of the same.’ There’s a high probability of little ability to estimate larger, discontinuous jumps in the story line.  That’s the v-Memes a talkin’.  Without larger reflection, even the best professionals are bound in the knowledge structures that map to their social structures.

Contrast that viewpoint of a hard-core game designer/computer scientist who works on these kinds of things for a living.  He/She would likely refer to the story line of the Mario franchise only incidentally.  Instead, there’d likely be a series of references to the hardware platform, the general structure of assembling object-oriented, virtual environments, and the challenges of coding a complex, entertaining game that ran at a speed that an eight-year-old master Mario Kart driver would be happy with. Descriptions of their world would not likely discuss the behavior of Mario or any of the characters at all! And if you added a master game design storyteller (think Deist God) to the mix, all discussing Mario Kart in the same room, you’d end up with a far more complete, meta-nonlinear representation of how these things have to work to entertain the mind, with Levels to Advance, Bosses to Whack, as well as technical details from the lower levels.  Scaffolding is going to matter to someone attempting to create any workable universe.

And so it is with our Theory of Empathetic Evolution. The Theory gives us the ‘how’ and ‘why’ under the concrete observable.  Without practice and study, much of this blog does not immediately map to the obvious. Which, more than anything, makes me feel embarrassed when I comment on other people’s blogs or Medium articles.  I know they’re likely not getting what I talk about.  Yet I persist, which says something about me.

The immediate response to that comment might be ‘well, all the surface-level observation of Mario Kart is just an illusion.  The enlightened master will surely know all of that and more.’  But if we consider this comment inside the context of our own Theory of Everything, this viewpoint is actually very status-oriented, and Authority-based.  We’re not granting the person watching or playing the game any agency at all.  We’re assuming that they’re unaware, which they may well be. But there may be insights into the physical manifestation of Mario Kart that may inspire our own deeper understandings, especially when we accept the larger notion of collective intelligence — that we’re really all connected. If we shut those people off from our own deeper understanding, there’s a very real chance we’ll miss the boat on what really makes Mario Kart tick. Even if they’re describing intimate detail of Koopa-banana peel interaction.

Another way of looking at this might be the paradigm that  Ken Wilber uses, called an Integral OS.  Ken calls his Integral perspective more formally All Quadrants/All Levels (AQAL) an operating system for life.  It’s deeply detailed and insightful, and since Wilber has served as a major inspiration for much of my own work, I won’t speak much ill of it.  Yet at the same time, it assumes the individual largely without context of the surrounding system. It offers aspirational pathways, and ways to measure your own progress toward enlightenment.  Yet, at the same time, it falls short of expanding itself into the integral whole we all operate under, at least if he’s not present for interpretation.

A better way of understanding our Theory of Empathetic Evolution might be to expand on this idea of a computer operating system, and maybe pull in a little Unix into the mix. Unix splits itself up into three layers: what’s called the Kernel, the software that interfaces directly with the hardware; the Shell, which is a set of customizable software commands that interface with the Kernel, and get the computer to execute specific tasks; and then finally, whatever application that runs on the top of the Shell.  The application in our example is Mario Kart, and if you’re immersed in the game, Mario Kart is as real as it can get, down to winning a race with Donkey Kong. It’s what you see from your egocentric perspective, and that big ape is gonna get you!

Down another level is the Shell.  The Shell starts the process of breaking up commands to the lower levels, of course.  But there’s something else going on here.  The Shell lets you know that there are lower levels, and those levels are structured around some set of physical laws.  There are things that now have cause-and-effect built into them as far as those physical laws of computing exist, and no longer can Mario (except in your mind) magically fly away when his car turns into a hang glider.

Down at the bottom is the Kernel, which is now completely interlocked with the physical laws of our universe — how fast things run, when things are executed, the clock that keeps track of the ticking of time.  It doesn’t look anything like Mario and Donkey Kong, but it’s what is really going on. Or rather, it’s the core of what’s going on, and only through a deeper understanding of how it works, can we start predicting more reliably the meta-nonlinear parts of our world.

And at the same time, it makes actual reality far more inaccessible to sharing with others. The comprehension, the insight, resist connection with others.  It’s a funny duality.  The more something is bound to the true physical world, the less comprehensible it is.  The further up in abstraction, the easier it is to understand.  I’m sure Zen Masters are shaking their head in agreement.  So that’s the challenge.  And filling in the answers of connection is going to have to involve all of us.

So what’s the point of all this?  It is excellent to have a larger theory that captures the meta-dynamics of human (or really, sentient) interaction.  It enables us to have some hope of predicting large scale changes in system behavior, and gives a framework for social evolution. But be aware that not everyone has that deeper view.  And even though they may be racing Bowser in Mario Kart, you can still get something from their perspective.  Just remember that Mario Kart isn’t real.  I think.  😉

Postscript — One of my favorite books of all time, Richard Bach’s Illusions, still serves a sentimental purpose in my intellectual framework.  As part of a difficult childhood, I needed to believe that everything was an illusion.  Still worth a read, and consideration for those that need Mario Kart completely dismantled.


Quickie Post — March for Science

Statue of Liberty Girls

Hanging with some new girlfriends, February 2017

I write a column for our local paper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, that runs every two weeks.  It serves as good exercise for me in working on moving many concepts in this blog down to a wider audience.  The piece below is a good example of this — one I didn’t really want to write at the beginning, but was glad that I did when I finished it.  It illustrates a solid appeal for a good empathetic ladder — science, when processed correctly, balancing ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ helps develop the multi-solution mind.

Note that this doesn’t always apply to all sciences, all the time.  Social structure still matters as far as perspective and knowledge creation.  Which means that there’s no substitute for developed mindfulness and reflection, and realizing what v-Meme you operate under.  Yet every scientist with developed reflective practice knows that every piece of knowledge they generate has some set of system boundaries, and recognizing that and contextualizing that information is as important for validity as it is for any other thought we have.  We believed in Newtonian physics as truth until quantum mechanics came along.

One of the purposes of this blog has been to give a theoretical reach to the social sciences that they haven’t had.  Physics has a great tool for rigorous metacognitive speculation and prediction.  We call it ‘Math’.  That helps physicists be a little more empathetic.  My hope is that some critical group of social scientists will also recognize the need, of course, and adopt or modify the principles I’ve laid out here, instead of being captured by their social structure.  That would cut down on the constant, arbitrary psychological philosophizing that occurs with every new experiment some academic does.  While there are some promising signs of this occasionally (shout-out to the Bowen Systems folks!) I’m not holding my breath.

At any rate — here’s my piece on the upcoming March for Science.  Feel free to borrow any messages you want without attribution.  Science is important — and all of us that are committed to it have to be in it to win it.  As I’ve stated over and over, science isn’t the answer to everything.  But without it as part of our scaffolding toolkit, we’re pretty much screwed.

Here’s the piece.

March for Science on April 22

Chuck Pezeshki, Reality-Based Lefty  April 14, 2017

On April 22, a week from now on Saturday, there will be a March for Science – an event that will happen both in communities around the U.S., as well as a large event in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall.  The event in Pullman will start at Pine Street Plaza, outside the Taco del Mar, at 1:00 PM, and proceed to Reaney Park, where there will be speeches and activities that discuss the relevance science has in our lives on the Palouse.

But the reality of the influence of science across our entire modern society goes much deeper. Because the core of science is what is called the Scientific Method – and the short version of that is that various tools are used to collect and measure all sorts of phenomena in our world, and then propose models that explain things that humans otherwise would resort to magical interpretations.

The challenge in today’s society is that as science has gotten more sophisticated, many of the discoveries have gotten stranger.  Not too many people have difficulty in accepting that the Earth is round, and that gravity pulls toward the center of the Earth – though if you go up on any college campus, and ask folks why people don’t fall off the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll find more than one student who looks at you confused.  Basic scientific literacy is definitely a core problem.

But science itself reveals things that bend the minds of many.  Take quantum mechanics, for example.  The idea of relative perspective is fundamentally built into the fabric of our universe.  Look at things as a wave, and they’re a wave.  Look at them as a particle, and they’re a particle.  And therein lies the rub.  The core of modern science rests on foundations of accepting ambiguity as being essential to truth. That’s where things for many people start falling apart.

Why? It takes some intellectual horsepower to hold duality and uncertainty in one’s mind. And with the bombardment of media and politician’s speech asserting what is called ‘dichotomous thinking’ – a right/wrong, Left/Right interpretation to every event, science, with its careful, methodical processes, subject to many opinions and reviews, is suffering.

What’s to be done? Scientists have to get out in front of the public more. One of the key things for the public to understand is that science is done everywhere – not just in a laboratory.  And the other thing that will help is for scientists to translate their work, which often consists of calculations and data, into personal experience that everyone can relate to. In my own world as an engineering scientist, I have no problem believing in global warming.  And not just because I can read the papers and look at the charts.  I have friends who work on the Greenland ice cap, and Antarctica.  I get to hear their stories about glacial recession, or uncanny heat waves over frozen snow fields.  I work with people that observe chimpanzees, and orangutans.  They can tell me how much like humans they actually are, as well as how they differ.

But most importantly, by connecting with these people, they tell me when, with evidence, my assumptions about the world and the various things in it, are wrong.  And by doing so, they keep my intellect developing.  Because believing in the scientific method forces me to change my mind.  That critical thing, linked to what is called ‘neuroplasticity’, keeps my brain alive, and keeps me learning.

Make no mistake that the current administration wants to gut science.  They want to do that because then they get to control the end result – the truth – as well as your ability to take in information and make up your own mind.  That’s beyond dangerous.

So turn out for the march.  It’s a small thing.  There are activities for the kids guaranteed.  And you might walk away with your mind changed about something!