Jeff Hawkins

Who is Doing the Pointing? CSICon Watches the Watchers

October 18, 2019

Who watches the watchers? The morning session for CSICon 2019 featured three speakers who all, in their own ways, asked us to consider where the information we take in is actually coming from and what it is we’re doing with that information once we’ve got it. The implications are incredibly significant. 

Behavioral scientist Gordon Pennycook started us off with an examination of bullshit. By that I mean our receptivity to things like fake news and misinformation, and it turns out that we have seen the enemy, and it is us. Well, it’s our brains. 

We skeptics pride ourselves on our ability to reason, but that’s by no means exclusive to us. In fact, what Pennycook pointed out was how our reasoning brains are what often people into trouble and buying into things that aren’t so. He referred to it as the “Good Lawyer Problem,” where our very capable reasoning brains take the available evidence and rather adroitly arranges that evidence so that it suits whatever our predetermined belief is. Our ability to reason it was often gets us to believe in bullshit. How frustrating is that?

Don’t despair (yet). Pennycook insists that although our reasoning brains can behave badly, they are ultimately the solution. People don’t self-delude as a rule, and are quite capable of inoculating themselves against self-deception. When we’re on the precipice of buying into falsehoods, “stopping and thinking for a few moments would have an impact.” Five seconds of thought can be what stands between us and irrationality. That doesn’t sound so bad.

Leighann Lord later jokingly bemoaned, “Five seconds? That’s a long time. I’m a little busy.” So am I. I have a lot of CSICon stuff to right. I hope I don’t wrongly believe something by accident.

Our reasoning brains need to be scrutinized for interpreting evidence badly, and similarly, Janice Boynton showed us that when it comes to the pseudoscientific practice of Facilitated Communication (FC) with people with disabilities such as severe autism, it’s the interpreters who we need to keep a close eye on. 

Boynton is herself a former practitioner of FC, and through the process of being tested, came to realize that there was no validity to what she was doing. The key question Boynton kept returning to was, “Who is doing the pointing?”

FC is a deeply frustrating topic for several reasons. People with disabilities are being taken advantage of (whether the facilitators mean to or not), practitioners fervently resist being tested in a controlled environment, and the focus on FC means that resources and efforts are not being directed toward forms of augmented communication that might actually work.

In case you need to be reminded how valuable the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia are, Boynton noted that their work on FC on Wikipedia has influenced other non-movement Wikipedia editors to take their cues from the skeptics and more strongly represent the facts about FC on the website. 

It was particularly cool to see Jeff Hawkins on stage. The founder of Palm and an expert in neuroscience, Hawkins gave a rather detailed presentation on how the brain constructs models of the world, and does so with a mass of cells in the neocortex that are, remarkably, all made of the same stuff. As he put it, “Everything we do is based on 150,000 copies of the same circuit!”

Even more mind-blowing was how Hawkins then took this fact of the neocortex’s model-building for physical objects and applied it to how we process abstract, higher thoughts, and posited that it could explain why we come to believe in things that are not so.

In this, um, model of our model-making, the neocortex does what it normally does with physical sensations, only it works with “inferred output” from other “columns” in the brain. Here, thinking is a form of “movement.” It’s just that there’s no sensory input. And if we get the wrong input, or incomplete input, well, you can guess how that turns out.

So much of the strife in this world stems from people holding conflicting beliefs about the same facts, Hawkins told us, and hoped that this new understanding of how the neocortex assembles information might give us a foothold to better understanding between each other, and people think the things they do. “Who is doing the pointing?” Look inside your own brain. The pointer is us.