Richard Dawkins

Changing minds

One of the skills we seem to have lost as a society is the ability to have conversations with people with whom we disagree and trying to change their minds. More often these days, the trend is to (literally or metaphorically) stomp off in a tantrum and stop talking to them. You see many people now demanding that those who disagree with them "unfriend" them on Facebook.

Richard Dawkins has always been a role model in terms of communication, having written some of the most influential popular science books of the twentieth century, including The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker.) Here is his advice:

As a magician, persuasion is part of the toolkit. I need to convince people that a specially prepared prop is ordinary, or that there is no way I could possibly know a piece of information I, in fact, already do. The heat and soul of it is:

Put yourself in the position of your audience. Try to see where they’re coming from.... sympathetically. And argue your case in a way that should resonate with them.

The important, and often overlooked, point is sympathetically. You can't assume (as many people seem to now) that the reason that people don't see things your way is because they are just morons. Whether you articulate it that way or just think it, it doesn't put you in a good position to begin changing their mind.  

The Power of Self-Deception

Self-deception is supposed to be a bad thing, right? There's no way being less informed about the way the world actually is could be beneficial... Surely.

Or not. According to a recent article in the Scientific American Blog:

People mislead themselves all day long. We tell ourselves we’re smarter and better looking than our friends, that our political party can do no wrong, that we’re too busy to help a colleague. In 1976, in the foreword to Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, the biologist Robert Trivers floated a novel explanation for such self-serving biases: We dupe ourselves in order to deceive others, creating social advantage. Now after four decades Trivers and his colleagues have published the first research supporting his idea.

I'm both fascinated and disturbed by the idea that misleading yourself can be beneficial in small doses. Not being entirely aware of your own shortcomings can lead to the confidence necessary to take a risk you wouldn't otherwise take, or nail a job interview when you may not actually be the most qualified candidate.

I've been aware of the phenomenon for years and I've read both The Selfish Gene and Trivers' full work on the subject, The Folly of Fools. Both are extremely important texts in modern science that help you to see human behaviour from a new perspective. 

I know from performing experience that simple acting is incredibly powerful. When I perform, I consciously adjust how hard it looks like I'm working, so members of the audience can't tell how difficult any particular trick is. When I need to mentally work my ass off behind the scenes, I've figured out how to project confidence so those internal machinations remain hidden. 

Appearances can be deceiving, even to ourselves. 

Spelling and Pronounciation

This morning's XKCD from Randall Muroe (author of one my favourite more recent books) had me laughing out loud for a little while.

Spoken language is interesting. On the one hand, I'm not a grammar nazi, but I am very aware that others use the way I speak to make judgements about me. It's a significant part of the "first impressions" process that I have some level of control over.

The words you use carry not just the semantic information of the words themselves, but also information about the speaker. In the same way that an image file on your phone carries embedded within itself information about when and where it was taken. Obvious examples include your accent, or the way you pronounce things like po-tay-to or po-tah-to convey information about where you were raised. Hearing someone say utilize where use is perfectly acceptable indicates that someone is trying to impress you by appearing more brainy or businesslike than they are comfortable being.

I discovered a few years ago that pronunciation carries information about the source of knowledge. A friend tried to pronounce Richard Dawkins' neologism meme.

Spoiler Alert: When Dawkins gives public talks, the word is pronounced "meem", and he said, in The Selfish Gene where he coined the term, that the word is intended as an analogy for gene and so sound similar. 

When my friend pronounced it, he called a "mimi". What I immediately realized was that he had never heard the word pronounced before; his knowledge of that term came entirely from reading. This happens a lot in magic where most of our history is recorded in books (with VHS, DVD and YouTube coming along fairly recently.) And there are names of prominent magicians with names whose pronunciations aren't obvious like "S.W. Erdnase", "Henry Christ" (which rhymes with gist) or more recently "David Acer" (pronounced Akker). So someone who knows of one of these magicians who doesn't know how to pronounce their name, must have encountered it only in text, indicating where their knowledge of magic comes from. Whereas someone who pronounces it properly (and may or may not know how to spell it properly) is more likely to have encountered it in conversation with other magicians, in a social setting or as part of a mentorship relationship. 

It's interesting to think about because on the one hand, we tend to have a great deal of respect for those who dig through original source material in search of fun new things to perform. On the other hand, we also respect the value of mentorship relationships for performers. 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes a word is worth more than a word.