Saturday, September 14, 2013

Metacognition - Socrates

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
As You Like It Act V, Scene i

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Active Vs. Passive Voice - Ronald Reagan

On January 27, 1987, in his State of the Union Address, Ronald Reagan discussed the Iran-Contra affair, a political scandal involving the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for hostages and the illegal funding of the Nicaraguan Contras.  Reagan characterized the affair as follows:

And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for.

Reagan's words follow the long political tradition of using the passive voice to evade direct admission of responsibility.  By recasting the sentence from the active "I made mistakes," the writer makes the subject the receiver of the action, instead of the source of the action.  This allows the complete removal of the subject:

Mistakes were made by me.

Notice the differences in the sentences below:

Active Voice:
The chicken crossed the road.
Passive Voice:
The road was crossed by the chicken.
In the passive example above, the actor  or subject (the chicken) is placed at the end of the sentence, while the object (the road) is moved to the front of the sentence.  In addition, note that the verb changes from "crossed" to "was crossed."  The transformation from active to passive also creates a more wordy sentence of seven words, rather than the five words in the active voice.

It is important to note that use of the passive voice is not a grammatical error.  In cases when a writer wants to place emphasis on the object, or what happened, over the subject, or who did it, the passive is perfectly acceptable.  In general, however, it is best to put the actor in front to create a more vivid and more concise sentence.

Thought and Language - George Orwell

In his 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell talks about the relationship between our thinking and our words.  In the essay's second paragraph he uses an analogy to illustrate the problem and its solution:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Read by writing students for generations, Orwell's essay is much more than just a treatise on how to write a better essay.  His essay shows that seeing though the abuses of language can truly be a matter of life and death:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Good writers, Orwell argues, do not surrender to words; instead, they take charge, thinking through what they are saying and apply six specific rules that help to make thought more clear, more concise, and more cogent: 
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

In one especially remarkable section of the essay, Orwell talks through the thinking process of using words to express abstract and concrete thoughts.  It describes how a write can control both thoughts and language, avoiding the bad habits that plague bad writing:

In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Obedience to Authority - Stanley Milgram

What percentage of people do you think would deliver a lethal dose of electricity to an innocent person when told to do so by an authority figure?

In order for the horrors of World War II’s Holocaust to happen, ordinary citizens and soldiers had to carry out the evil schemes of the Nazis.  To find out how this happened and if it could happen again, Stanely Milgram, a professor of psychology, conducted numerous experiments.  He told his subjects that he was conducting a memory study.  One subject, the teacher, would take commands from a scientist in a lab coat.  The scientist told the teacher that he would be teaching word pairs to another subject in the next room.  If the partner in the next room got an answer wrong, the teacher was to administer an electric shock.  With each wrong answer, the voltage of the shock increased.  In reality no actual shocks were administered since the student in the next room was an actor.  As each wrong answer was given and as each increasing dose of electricity was administered, the actor screamed louder, sometimes pleading with the teacher to end the experiment.  When the teacher, hearing the screams of his student, asked to stop the experiment, the scientist would urge him to continue, saying, “The experiment requires that you continue.”  In the end 65% of the teachers followed the directions of the scientist, continuing to increase the dosage until it reached its highest point, which was marked “XXX,” implying death.
Milgram’s study clearly showed how ordinary people could easily be persuaded to commit unspeakable acts of evil.  When put in a position where they see themselves as just following orders, individuals become instruments instead of people, operating without a moral compass.

The 90/90 Prospect
In variations of his study, Milgram had subjects observe others act as teachers before taking part themselves.  In the cases where the first teacher rebelled against the instructions of the scientist, 90% of participants also refused to continue.  In cases where the first teacher followed the directions of the scientist to the point of administering the fatal dose of electricity, 91% of participants also went all the way.   The conclusion from this is that we are powerful social models for each other.  Goodness is infectious; unfortunately, so is evil.