Saturday, December 31, 2005

"Terrorism is Like Cancer"

One of my work-related hobbies is analogy hunting. It's a pretty easy hobby to take up, because the damn things are everywhere. One of their more common habitats is politics, where, as Lakoff has famously noted (even if he gets the terminology, and the mechanisms, and the actual analogies, and pretty much everything else, wrong), they're nearly ubiquitous. Some of my favorites, such as "If Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk," come from politics. So when I listen to political speech or read articles on politics, I'm always on the lookout for them. I was surprised, then, to learn that I'd missed a fairly common one in recent political discourse. Apparently, people have been going around comparing terrorism to cancer for a while. I only learned of the analogy, which is a beaut, when I came across (via LGM) John Quiggin's post on it yesterday. I guess I'm not as skilled a hunter as I had believed.

The analogy is beautiful for many reasons. For one, they have a few very salient surface similarities (similar properties that don't necessarily involve similar relations), such as being dangerous and deadly, as well as difficult to deal with. Since surface similarities generally drive the retrieval of analogs, it's likely that these surface similarities drive the use of the terrorism-cancer analogy, and that makes the analogy a good illustration of the retrieval stage of analogy. In addition, because the concepts are really broad, and our representations of them rich with relational structure, there are all sorts of directions in which the analogy could go, and thus all sorts of conclusions that we could derive from it. To see this, just look at some of the uses of the analogy a quick google search produced:
  • Terrorism is like cancer. Either you deal with it and you cut it out, or it eats
    you up. -
    Itimar Rabinovich
  • Certainty is that terrorism is like cancer: it must be rooted out from our history with every means, even if the method does not promise to be painless. This cancer has already reached a metastatic stage. Hence it is our duty not to prevaricate with unproductive, sterile debates in order to avoid the destruction of the little there still is to defend in our world. - Genina Iacabone
  • Terrorism is like cancer. Cancer spreads rapidly, and if cells are left to proliferate, they kill their host organism, and thereby kill themselves. There is no reasoning against it. So what do we do about it? - The Real Kato Online
  • Terrorism is like cancer. It's starts small then spreads rapidly. - from a comment at Mental Mayhem
  • Terrorism is like cancer. You have to eliminate it. Sometimes you use surgery and sometimes radiation. - Lt. Col. William Bograkos, quoted by Ron Jensen in Stars and Stripes
  • Terrorism is like cancer, it is both a specific and systemic condition. - William Meyer
  • An article titled "Fighting Cancer and Terrorism - Our Fight Is Similar" by Karl Schwartz at, of all places. This one compares the two concepts on many different dimensions. Here are two paragraphs:
    First, the sickness and unreality we feel at diagnosis is very much like the experience of Americans on September 11 and it's aftermath. The enemy is also similar. It comes from ourselves and is somehow twisted (mutated) to become something that betrays us—that seeks our death. Just as every siren post 9-11 evokes renewed fear of assault and senseless violence; every new feeling and symptom carries with it a fear that the cancer is back or growing.

    There is no reasoning with this enemy although it’s theoretically possible to do so, just as it’s possible to induce cancer cells to differentiate to normal cells—but this change over is rare and not curative. We understand that humanity is a body [another analogy... score!] that requires cooperation and rules of conduct. We know that cancer cells have lost this connection—that they have lost the rules that govern normal function and service to the body.
There are hundreds more, including some that use cancer primarily as imagery (e.g., "The Metastasizing Cancer Of Pakistan/Aghanistan-based Islamic Terrorism"). In each case, terrorism is the target of the comparison, and cancer the base. In other words, no one's trying to say that cancer is like terrorism, they're all saying that terrorism is like cancer -- there's a difference, which I'll get to in a bit. Since analogies are generally used to carry over parts of the representation of the base concept to the concept, people are using cancer to say something about terrorism. In the above examples, the use of cancer as a base concept teaches us that terrorism must be treated, preferably quickly; that we must use every means at our disposal to do so, including the surgical and the less accurate (killing some civilians, or healthy cells, along with the bad guys, or cancer cells); that like cancer, terrorism begins locally, but rapidly spreads; and that like cancer cells, terrorist cells can rarely be reasoned with, and reasoning never solves the whole problem; etc.

Of course, some of the parts of the representation of cancer that are carried over to terrorism are pretty general, many other concepts could have been used in place of cancer. For instance, kudzu spreads fast, and if you don't hit it early and often, pretty soon it will be all over the place. Terrorism, then, is like kudzu. Fashion trends spread pretty quickly, too. Terrorism is like fashion trends? It's likely that, at least in some cases, the use of cancer as a base in the analogy is due more to the fact that cancer is really, really bad, and making the comparison reiterates the badness of terrorism (as if this were something of which we needed to be reminded). This illustrates a finding from the research on political analogies: base concepts are often chosen for their emotional valence. If you want to remind people that something is bad, you pick something really bad for your analogy, and if you want to make people feel like something is good, you pick something with positive emotional value. That might be why the "fashion trends" analogy doesn't work well (though I've been known to compare fashion trends to cancer).

It's important to note that the analogies all move in one direction, so I'll say it again: cancer is the base, and is used to tell us something about the target, terrorism. This is important because of one of the most pervasive features of analogy: tasymmetrymetry. Saying X is like Y, and then carrying over information about Y to X, doesn't necessarily make it possible to carry over information from X to Y. asymmetrymetry is part of what makes analogies so useful. The more salient, and extra information in the base domain allows us to make novel inferences about the target domain. The classic examplasymmetrymetry in comparisons, from the work of Amos Tversky, is "North Korea is like Red China." In Tversky's experiments with this comparison, participants judged North Korea to be much more similar to China than China is to North Korea. This is, in part, because the properties that drive the comparison between the two are more salient in China than in North Korea. That's why people chose China as the base concept in the comparison in the first place, and is likely one of the reasons why people chose cancer as a base concept in the terrorism-cancer analogy. In addition, it's likely that participants' representations of China were richerichar than their representations of North Korea. This means there were a wealth of candidate inferences from China to North Korea, and few, if any, from North Korea to China. Most of those candidate inferences probably wouldn't hold for North Korea, but the analogy makes it possible to test them out if we're so inclined. The same is probably true of the terrorism-cancer analogy. As the few examples above show, we can try inferences from several different parts of our cancer representation, including treatment, the behavior of cancer at large and individual cancer cells, and even how people feel when they find out that they have cancer. It's not clear from those comparisons, however, which if any inferences we might draw from terrorism to cancer. Thus, contrary to what one ofcommentersntors on Quiggin's posts asserts, the assertion that "terrorism is like cancer" does not imply the assertion that "cancer is like terrorism," or at least, not that cancer is like terrorism in the same way or to the same degree.

One other interesting, and common, feature of the above comparisons (except, perhaps, Meyer's strangely-placed article) is how narrow the comparisons are. Each author aligns the representations of terrorism and cancer on only a few of the many possible relations in each of the concepts' representations. The analogy, while it is likely meant to carry some emotional weight, isn't meant to be a very deep one. It's just used to say one or two things about terrorism using facts about cancer. It's not quite fair, then, to criticize the uses of the analogy by pointing out that the analogy itself fails if we try to extend it to other parts of the cancer representation, which is part of what Quiggin appears to be doing. Of course, Quiggin's own use of the analogy serves a pretty clear rhetorical purpose, and serves it well. In a sense, what he does is hypothetically reversecomparisonrsion, so that it is now cancer is like terrorism, and he then shows how aspects ofrepresentationntion of terrorism, or the discourse on terrorism, either don't carry over to cancer, or look really silly when they do. Using an opponent's analogy against him or her in order to show the absurdity of his or her position is yet another demonstration of a common use of analogy.

So, while the analogy may not be very good, or very useful for reasoning about terrorism (I'm not sure any of the things people said in the above examples were unknown to their audiences before they read the analogy), I'd bet it's a pretty effective analogy from a communication standpoint, and from the perspective of an analogy hunter like me, it's wonderful, because it perfectly illustrates so many aspects of analogy's production, use, and comprehension. I wish I'd run across it sooner.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Quick Note on Dover

I'm on vacation in the Athens of the South, so I haven't had much time to post on anything. I've got some nice cog sci tidbits planned, though. Anyway, I wanted to express how happy I am at the Dover ruling on Intelligent Design, and that I hope its effects are felt in school districts throughout the country. Many pro-science bloggers have pointed out their favorite parts of the ruling, and there are many great ones from which to choose. I think, though, that the most revealing comment in the ruling was this one:
First, defense expert Professor Fuller agreed that ID aspires to "change the ground rules" of science and lead defense expert Professor Behe admitted that his broadened definition of science, which encompasses ID, would also embrace astrology. Moreover, defense expert Professor Minnich acknowledged that for ID to be considered science, the ground rules of science have to be broadened to allow consideration of supernatural forces.
You have to wonder how Michael Behe could have thought that his testimony, and that of the other expert witnesses for the ID side, showed "a lot of people that ID is a very serious idea," when his testimony included admitting that in order to include Intelligent Design as science, you'd have to include astrology as well. Perhaps his mistaken assessment of his own testimony was due to the fact that his Tarot cards weren't very accurate that day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Problem With Meaning

A few years ago, during one of my rabid "embodiment" phases, I sat in on an AI discussion group comprised mostly of people who actually worked on AI. Being a mere cognitive psychologist, without a much knowledge about computers, I learned a lot, though I think most of the points and questions I raised were pretty stupid (I imagine some of the people in the group cringed every time I opened my mouth). However, there was one problem that I noticed when the AI people talked about "meaning," and no one in the group gave me what I felt was a satisfactory answer to it, so it's bugged me off and on ever since. The way I saw the problem back then was that in certain cases, it's necessary to understand the affordances of objects in order to understand sentences, and understanding affordances requires having a body. I'm no longer so certain that you need a body to understand the affordances of objects, but what you would need in place of that would be such a large body of interconnected knowledge, along with a wealth of "theories" about how to use that knowledge, that building an artificial system capable of comprehending some very simple sentences would be near impossible.

To illustrate this problem, consider two sentences.
(1) John kicked the ball to Mary.
(2) John crutched the ball to Mary.
The syntactic structures are the same, and it would be easy to teach the syntax to a computer. Thus you could get the machine to understand the outcome of the event described in the sentence: Mary ends up with the ball, as a result of an action performed by John. But what if you asked the machine to describe how John got the ball to Mary? What if the computer's task was to describe John's action? It could probably do OK with sentence (1), because the action isn't a novel one, and having been programmed with the meaning of the word "kicked," all it would have to do is spit that meaning out. But sentence (2) contains a novel verb, one which the machine is unlikely to have in its lexicon (unless the programmer has read the paper from which I stole the verb, and is trying to get one past me). You and I shouldn't have much trouble figuring out John's action in (2), even without context (if we added a little context, such as a sentence preceding both (1) and (2) that read, "John was standing across the table from Mary, and the ball was on the table," figuring out (2) would be even easier for us). What would the computer need to describe John's action in (2)?

The answer is that the computer would have to understand what sorts of actions are possible with a crutch -- the affordances of crutches -- as well as being able to reason about which of those actions would be effective in performing the action described in the sentence. As I said, I used to think that this required having a body (because affordances are organism-specific, and even body-specific), and that may still be the case. But if it doesn't require having a body, and even if it does, you've got to have a whole heck of a lot of background knowledge and folk theories to get the affordances of a crutch for John, and pick the relevant ones for a given context. For example, you'd have to know that the hard end of a crutch can be used to apply force to other solid objects (i.e., to push them); you'd have to know that balls are generally light enough to be pushed by a crutch; you'd have to know that some ways of applying force will work in some situations, but not in others (e.g., John and Mary may be close to each other, or indoors, making swinging the crutch like a baseball bat to hit the ball over to Mary impractical, and even dangerous); if you knew that the ball was far enough away from John that he would be forced to fully extend his arm and utilize the full length of the crutch to get to the ball, you'd have to know that the mechanics of the situation would probably require John to hold onto the bottom of the crutch and use the top (the part that goes under your arm when walking with a crutch) to hit the ball, while if the ball were closer to John, it might be easier to use the crutch the other way around. The list of things could go on and on. And the machine would have to know things like this for every novel verb it came across (and novel verbs, particularly denominal verbs like "crutched," are pretty common in everyday language).

So that's the problem I saw back then, and still see today. In order to write a program that can understand the meaning of sentences with which you and I would have no trouble, you basically have to program in most or all of the knowledge of at least a well-developed human child, if not an adult. And I don't see how that's really possible. It certainly doesn't seem to be possible today, since we don't have a firm understanding of how people reason about the mechanics of situations like the one in (2), or how they activate the relevant background knowledge (the paper linked above gives one potential answer, in the form of the "Indexical Hypothesis"). If a machine doesn't have that level of knowledge, every time it gets a novel verb, it's going to be lost.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Annual Plea to Ban Christmas

Sorry for the dearth of posts, but I haven't gotten into the swing of blogging again, and this is an incredibly busy time of year, as you can imagine. However, I wanted to take a few moments of my precious time to speak on a topic about which I am very passionate: banning Christmas. I don't really want to ban the holiday that falls on December 25, because let's face it, I really need the break that comes with it, and the presents aren't so bad either. What I really want to do, is remove the word Christ from its name. By calling it Christmas, the American public is explicitly endorsing Christianity, and all that comes with it -- such as hating gay people, women, gay people, Muslims, scientists, gay people, black people (in some denominations), and atheists (particularly if they're gay). Folks, this simply will not do! I say, let them teach about God in public schools, through the Pledge of Allegiance or Intelligent Design creationism, and let them openly display Judeo-Christian doctrine in courtrooms and other government buildings. The government has a right to side with any religion it chooses. But the people? That's downright unconstitutional! What's more, it's un-American.

Of course, I fully realize that in order to keep the holiday, but remove all Christian connotations from it, we'll need to come up with a new name. My first thought was Secularmas, or maybe Darwinmas, but those don't really roll off the tongue. Besides, what would Darwin's mass be like (while I'm certain that Dr. Myers would be happy to hold such a mass, I'm not sure that anyone would attend, and holiday songs about finches and zebra fish would be a bit creepy). But after some very careful thought, I've come up with a few workable ideas for new holiday names, and in the spirit of democracy, I thought we could put it to a vote. So, please, pick one of the following names, and write to your Senators, congresspeople, and alderpeople to say that you believe this should be the new name for Christmas. Here are the choices:
  • Bowless Day - This is the only day between December 21 and December 30th on which there is not a college bowl game. Given how boring and meaningless all of those December bowl games are, this is truly a cause for celebration.
  • Newtonmas - The father of modern physics was born on December 25, 1642. Since Christ wasn't actually born on December 25, Newtonmas is not only more constitutional, but more accurate as well.
  • Buffettmas - The singer was also born on December 25. In place of eggnog, we could serve margaritas. This fact alone should get "Buffettmas" several votes.
  • Couldn't Make it Home for Thanksgiving Day Day - This one is mostly personal. Every year, I miss my mother's wonderful cooking on Thanksgiving, because she lives 1,000 miles a way, and cornbread stuffing doesn't do well in the mail. Fortunately, I usually get to go home during the winter break, and on December 25 she reprises her Thanksgiving meal. Mmm... cornbread stuffing.
  • Lie To Your Children Day - Yes, son, Santa can see you wherever you are, and he can tell whether you're being good or bad. He really does slide down chimneys with a bag full of presents, and eat all of those wonderful cookies that you laid out. And yes, it is strange that both Santa and your father prefer Belgian beer to milk with their cookies.
  • Anti-Gay Marriage Day - I don't really like this one, but I figure it might make some of the less zealous Christians more amenable to changing the holiday's name. All we need is a majority of the 30% of the population that votes, people!
  • Easter II - I know Easter is ostensibly a Christian holiday, but the name "Easter" doesn't really have any religious meaning, and wouldn't it be cool if Santa and the Easter Bunny worked together?
  • And last but not least, Budget Breaking Day - Do you know how much presents have put me out this year? Let's just say that a few more years like this, and the kid's college fund is going to be renamed the six-week computer course fund.
There they are, the potential new names for Christmas. Many of you could probably come up with other names, but that would just lead to pointless bickering and debate, so I say we stick with these. Remember, it's your duty as an American (and if you're not an American, then as someone who wishes he or she was) to remove all religious references from the public, non-governmental sphere. And the greeting card companies will need a few months to rewrite all of the Christmas cards for Newtonmas, or whatever name we choose, so if we're going to start the new holiday by next year, we need to choose the name soon. So pick a name and start lobbying for it right away.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I'm a Racist: One Cognitive Psychologist's Thoughts on Racism Part I

Yesterday was Blog Against Racism Day, but having been out of the blogging loop for a while, I missed it. Several bloggers participated, and there were many interesting posts. I'll just link to two of them, because I found them particularly interesting. The first is at Heo Cwaeth (the coolest blog name out there, and also a pretty good blog that you should be reading), discussing the relationship between racism and discourse on sexuality. The second is by Amanda at Pandagon (she also has a follow up), in which she talks about stereotypes. I wish I had something insightful to say about Heo Cwaeth's post, but I don't. I do, however, have a lot to say about stereotypes, even if I can't promise that it will be all that insightful either. But before I don the cognitive psychologist cap and start speaking about stereotypes in a cold, scientific way, I want to say a little about my experience with racism, and (dare I say it) as a racist. Because even if you're white, Anglo-Saxon, and protestant (I'm only the first of those three), racism is still something that you can, and should, experience personally. If you don't want to read the personal stuff, you can skip this post, and read the next, which is all cog psych. I won't be upset.

OK, where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. I was born and grew up in the South, where, in the 70s and 80s, racism was still very much out in the open, unlike in today's South , where it tends to bubble just under the surface, rearing its ugly head in ways that are often difficult to detect if you don't know what you're looking for, while more overt examples are quickly shunned by almost everyone, including the some of most racist among us. My parents, thankfully, are fairly enlightened souls, and during my early childhood, they never discussed racial differences or stereotypes, so as a young child, I never really thought about race. It simply wasn't a dimension on which I divided people into groups. It can safely be said that until age six, I was not a racist.

But when I started first grade, attending public school for the first time (after going to private preschools and kindergarten), I ran face first into a towering wall of racism. One of the first friends I made at my new school, a boy named Tony, was black. After that, I made several white friends, who frequently made fun of Tony for being black, and constantly referred to him as "nigger," a word that I had never heard before. It wasn't long before I was shunning Tony, not wanting to be associated with someone whom my other friends thought was inferior. What's worse, I began to see him as inferior too, as dirty even. Once I even refused to drink at a water fountain immediately after him, because I didn't want to get "nigger germs" (a phrase one of my friends frequently used). I was internalizing all sorts of classic racial stereotypes, and had become a full fledged member of the racist southern culture, a culture that was clearly evident in my school. White children ate and played with white children, black children ate and played with black children, and there was little if any intermingling between the two groups. I was no different.

In my own defense, I was only six at the time, and had no concept of the implications of my thoughts and actions towards Tony and other black children. But racism has to start at some age, and for me it started, but didn't end, at age six. It wasn't until I was in fourth grade, when a black family moved in next door to us (the first black family in the neighborhood, and the only one for many years -- self segregation was not limited to elementary schools), that my thinking began to change. One of the children in the family was a boy about 3 years younger than me. One day he was out playing in his back yard, when a neighborhood friend and I came out and saw him there. Hurling racial epithets, and teasing him more generally, we got into a verbal altercation with him, and soon began throwing rocks from our gravel driveway at him. His mother finally came out and yelled at us, ending the altercation. She then went to my parents, and told them what had happened. That evening I received one of the longest, and most needed lectures of my life, about how he was a boy just like me, with feelings just like mine, and so on. And I suddenly realized how wrong I had been in my thoughts and actions towards black people. The boy next door and I soon became good friends, and remained so until he moved away when I was a junior in high school (we are still friends, in fact; he and his new wife recently visited me while they were in town).

That story alone could probably serve as a good lesson on how easily negative societal views on race can be perpetuated, even when a child's parents are not themselves (overtly) racist. If a black family had not moved in next door, and my parents had not intervened, I would likely have grown up to be as racist as many in this country still are. But the story doesn't really end there, because I did grow up, and though my explicit attitudes on race changed dramatically during that lecture, racial stereotypes are much more difficult to completely kill than that, even within an individual.

By the time I went off to college, I considered myself to be an even more enlightened soul than my parents. I was fervently anti-racism, and attacked it wherever I saw it. However, with the exception of my childhood neighbor, I hadn't really had any black friends, and wasn't really in close contact with many black people on a regular basis. When I finally did make some black friends, my illusory self-image was quickly put to the test. Not many days went by that one of them didn't point out something I did that was insensitive, indicated prejudice, or seemed downright racist. I was shocked each time, and rebelled against it, arguing vehemently that I was not a racist, and that they were simply misperceiving my actions. It goes without saying that such blind defensive behavior is not conducive to maintaining friendships, be they with people who are black, white, or purple for that matter. And when the friendships did end (none of them ended in anger; they generally just dissolved into a complete lack of interaction), my belief that I was not a racist persisted.

Then I got a real shock to my system. I began dating a black woman. You can probably guess what I was thinking when the relationship began. "See, I'm not a racist? Would a racist be dating a black woman? I think not!" But she was blessed with a personality trait that my earlier black friends were not (or at least that they had not exhibited with me; it wasn't their job to educate me, after all): incredibly stubborn persistence. When she observed me doing something that was, to someone who had been the object of racism all of her life, clearly a sign of prejudice or, as we white people who want to put a positive spin on our attitudes and actions call it, "race consciousness," she let me know in no uncertain terms. And as before, I would kick and scream in denial. But she would persist, I would deny, she would persist, and eventually, and uncomfortably, I would realize that she was right. I was a racist. Or better put, I am a racist.

You see, many of the racist attitudes that I had developed as a young child, and that I was sure were long gone by the time I was a young adult, are still in there, affecting my behavior in ways that I, as someone who has never really had to worry about the negative effects of discrimination in my own life, simply didn't notice. I've been lucky, in that I've since had several close relationships with people from various minority groups, who have been kind enough to help me learn how to perceive some of those effects on my behavior, but I'd be deluding myself if I believed that I had learned about all of them. And believe me, that's not a comfortable thing for an "enlightened soul" like myself, a staunch left-winger, to admit, to myself or to anyone else. But if I don't admit it to myself, then I will never be able to learn how to better approach issues of race, and to relate to people from other races. And if I were a betting man, I'd wager that most of the people who are reading this (assuming someone has made it to this point) should be admitting this same thing to themselves, if they haven't already. If we don't all begin to do so, then ridding our society of racism will be completely impossible.

Now I can't offer any good social or political advise on how to rid society of racism, but I can say a little bit about how stereotypes and attitudes toward race work, why they're so persistent, and how they can affect our behavior without us even realizing it. So in my next belated Blog Against Racism Day post, that's what I'll try to do.

[Completely Unrelated Note: Has anyone else who uses blogger ever noticed that the word "blogger" is not in Blogger's spell-check lexicon? How odd is that?]