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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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PRESENTING THE QUANTUM PANDER


Wednesday April 08, 2015

In recent days, Mike Pence, the governor of Indiana has given us a political analogy to Erwin Schrodinger's famous thought experiment in which he posited that there were situations in quantum mechanics where a cat could simultaneously be both alive and dead. In Pence's case, in the course of one week he both attacked as an unjust smear, the criticism that a bill he signed on religious freedom implicitly gave license to individuals and businesses to refuse customers if serving them violated their beliefs, and also demanded that the bill be "fixed" before the end of the week. Thus the bill in question was both perfect as it was, but also in urgent need of fixing. Call it quantum pandering.

These days Pence might prefer to be living in a world of quantum indeterminacy. In 1935, Schrodinger dreamed up his scenario in response to an interpretation of quantum mechanics in which various possible realities remained piled up upon one another -- "super-positioned" is the word physicists use -- until they were observed, at which point these many states would "collapse" into something definite. In Pence's case he was faced with the task of appeasing two core constituencies of the Republican Party: the Christian right who abhor gay marriage, and the business community, which doesn't want to alienate potential customers. The problem for Pence is that neither is a subatomic particle, and both want definite results, not the blurry miasma which politicians prefer to inhabit.

The difference between quantum pandering and the more familiar political syndrome of flip-flopping is the element of time. John Kerry could get away -- sort of -- with the phrase "I was for the war before I was against it" because people are allowed to change their minds. We enter the political equivalent of quantum reality when the two contradictory positions are near simultaneous. Flip-flopping, hardly more noble, usually represents a politician's craven recognition that a pander isn't working. Quantum pandering is not about the times changing, but rather the need to appease two irreconcilable points of view at the same time.

A near-heroic example of flip-flopping took place in 1961 when Robert Wagner ran for his third term for Mayor of New York City as a reform candidate, in essence running as an incumbent on a "throw the bums out platform." The bums in this instance, were the very political machine, the operatives of Tammany Hall, who had put him in office for his first two terms. Mitt Romney came closer to the quantum pander during the 2012 campaign when he both defended the health care plan he championed in Massachusetts and attacked Obamacare, which was based on that very plan.

The Pence drama is but a warm up to the 2016 presidential election, which promises a rich smorgasbord of quantum panders. How will the Democrats tap into anger at wealth inequality and the impunity of the banks without alienating the deep pockets of Wall Street? Will Rand Paul find himself caught between the libertarian abhorrence of foreign adventures and Republican allegiance to defense spending; or rights of privacy and government surveillance? For those planning to keep score at home, a flip flop becomes a quantum pander when it occurs within the same week, as politics works operates slightly longer timescales than quantum mechanics. Do you agree Dr. Schrodinger?

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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