The Value of Divination, or Just Do Something

I’m editing a (fascinating) book about the evolutionary roots of schizophrenia at the moment, and one of the chapters is on the evolution of religion. The author submits that one of the evolutionary benefits of religion is divination: attempting to see the future.

At first I though, what the hell use is some fraud who tries to tell everyone he knows which hunting area is best or where water is going to be found?

This is what the author says: “The power of divination allows an entire tribe to back an arbitrary decision — it is better to roll the dice and do something than not do anything at all.”

You see? Having a shaman cast some stones or burn a shoulder blade, and then point in an (as it turns out) arbitrary direction gives the tribe a decision to get behind, instead of everyone spending days and days arguing (without evidence) in favour of their own pet ideas.  The randomness of the divining techniques might even send the tribe off in a fruitful direction they would never have chosen using reason.

This is a great lesson: sometimes it’s better to just make a decision — any decision — and then pursue it with all your resources than to sit around and waffle about what might happen if you make the wrong choice.


There, but for the grace of God, go I.

There was an article today on parentcentral.ca about children dying when they’re left in hot cars. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate, but the article is interesting because it talks about the number of children who were left because their parents forgot they were there:

The parents of more than half of almost 500 children who died from being left in hot cars from 1998 to 2010 simply forgot their kids were in the vehicles, experts report.

and about the fact that people think it could not happen to them, following this train of thought:

Forgetting your child is something only a bad parent would do. I am not a bad parent. Therefore I would never forget my child.

This is, perhaps, a comforting line of thought, but it’s  flawed. An empty rear-facing car seat looks identical, from the driver’s seat, to a rear-facing car seat with a sleeping baby in it. If you’re outside of your usual routine, tired, sick, or distracted, it would be quite possible—unlikely, to be sure, but possible—to walk away from the car believing that your child is safe at daycare. Maybe you’re not the usual dropper-off, maybe you thought you dropped her off but actually didn’t, maybe when you pulled out of the driveway you immediately started thinking about that big sales call or review meeting and were already in work-mode before you hit the highway. It can happen to anyone, not just flaky people, or stupid people, or irresponsible people. Just because a mistake is tragic and ugly and hard to think about, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

The above line of thought is not just flawed, though, it leads to a terrible consequence: neglecting to provide reminders to yourself that your child is in the car. If you think this only happens to bad parents, and you’re not a bad parent, then why remind yourself not to do it? But think how simple it would be to get in the habit of throwing your purse or cellphone on the back seat. You retrieve your purse, you remember your baby (who isn’t there, of course, because it hardly ever happens) and voila, it’s all good. Bad thing (that would never happen to you, of course) averted.


Does Geek Culture Reinforce a Fixed Mindset?

I just read “Nerds, we need to have a talk” at Thingist. It’s about the author’s perception of geek culture as excessively critical, judgemental and impatient with newbies and amateurs. I haven’t been part of geek culture for a long time, so I can’t comment on whether his perceptions reflect the general community, but I can certainly vouch for that attitude at the undergrad level.

One passage from the post struck me. The writer is describing his attempts to learn how to skateboard:

One day at the skatepark I was sitting off to the side just watching everybody else and kind of wishing that I wasn’t there. One of my best friends, Steve, came up to me to ask what I was doing.

“Oh, man, I suck at this. I’m just going to practice at home or something. I don’t want to get into anybody’s way.”

“What? Dude, you look like a weird-o just sitting over here, and you’re not going to learn anything by just staring at that thing. If I ever catch you sitting on this bench again, you’re not invited to the skatepark anymore.” (There were probably quite a few more vulgarities, but this was the gist of it)

I have never seen this attitude in the geek community. It’s always been “You’re doing it wrong, and you should give up because you suck at it.” or “if you’re not using $hip_new_language, then you’re a loser.”

“You’re doing it wrong, and you should give up because you suck at it.” That was pretty much my religion between age 8 and 24; I gave up on so many skills prematurely because I wasn’t immediately good at them.

Maybe it started because I was overpraised, but it never occurred to me until now that the geek culture I immersed myself in in university might have reinforced my mindset, by reinforcing the fear of “looking stupid”.

(As it turns out I never did manage to get past the “looking stupid” phase of becoming a programmer, largely because I didn’t realize that if I kept plugging away at it, I would eventually improve.)