Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Politics of the Random

The Sinking Ark (2)

Steven Levy, an editor at Newsweek, gets an iPod Shuffle and finds that it keeps playing his Steely Dan cuts in preference to everything else he's put on it. Being a Newsweek editor with Clout, he calls Steve Jobs, who tells him that the random-choice algorithm has been rechecked and validated. Being no dummy, Levy next calls a mathematician.

The mathematician lets Levy in on an open secret: our brains can't do random, and what's more, won't do it. They (which means we) would rather posit a pro-Steely-Dan conspiracy among the chips in the iPod or back at the Apple factory or in the basement of the White House than acknowledge that a genuinely random sequence usually seems to us full of pattern and meaning.

Michael Gazzaniga, who spread the word about split-brain research back in the seventies, published an article in the July 1998 Scientific American called "The Split Brain Revisited." He recounts a wonderful experiment at Dartmouth in which commissurotomy patients' separate brain hemispheres are each presented with a weighted random stimulus: two lights, one of which flashes 80% of the time and the other 20%. The right hemisphere quickly settles down to gaily guessing top top top top top, and a success rate of 80%. So does a rat. The left hemisphere won't quit; it clings tenaciously to the idea of a pattern, constructs elaborate systems of prediction, and never gets above 68%. It knows somebody in there is pushing Steely Dan. From the left hemisphere's point of view, the right hemisphere's behavior is mindless.

The most vicious and stupid manifestation of the Steely Dan Maneuver, or the stupidest and most vicious on display this morning, is the campaign to teach "Intelligent Design" alongside the stuff Darwin pointed out 150 years ago. The fundamental argument, of course, is that randomness just couldn't produce something as complicated as life, the eye of the octopus, Steely Dan, or the Kansas Board of Education. My own hope is that Kansas will enact this "educational" policy, because I'm in favor of intellectual and financial resources moving from the middle of the U.S. toward its edges—as Garrison Keillor remarks, state lotteries are a tax on people who weren't that good at math—but I realize this is provincial, so I regret hoping it.

The best thing about the SDM, on the other hand, is described this way by Gazzaniga: "Our uniquely human skills may well be produced by minute and circumscribed neuronal networks. And yet our highly modularized brain generates the feeling in all of us that we are integrated and unified. How so, given that we are a collection of specialized modules? The answer may be that the left hemisphere seeks explanations for why events occur. . . ." In a word, that rabid left hemisphere fabricates our sense of having a self. (And this is the best of the SDM?) Theories of God couldn't have been far behind, a few decamillennia ago. That would make the Kansas argument well and truly and cosmically circular.


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