Carl Sagan

Percy Fawcett’s 2 Lost Cities

            In his surprisingly profound, insanely fun book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann writes about his visit to a store catering to outdoorspeople in preparation for his trip to research, and to some degree retrace, the last expedition of renowned explorer Percy Fawcett. Grann, a consummate New Yorker, confesses he’s not at all the outdoors type, but once he’s on the trail of a story he does manifest a certain few traits in common with adventurers like Fawcett. Wandering around the store after having been immersed in the storied history of the Royal Geographical Society, Grann observes,
Racks held magazines like Hooked on the Outdoors and Backpacker: The Outdoors at Your Doorstep, which had articles titled “Survive a Bear Attack!” and “America’s Last Wild Places: 31 Ways to Find Solitude, Adventure—and Yourself.” Wherever I turned, there were customers, or “gear heads.” It was as if the fewer opportunities for genuine exploration, the greater the means were for anyone to attempt it, and the more baroque the ways—bungee cording, snowboarding—that people found to replicate the sensation. Exploration, however, no longer seemed aimed at some outward discovery; rather, it was directed inward, to what guidebooks and brochures called “camping and wilderness therapy” and “personal growth through adventure.” (76)         
Why do people feel such a powerful attraction to wilderness? And has there really been a shift from outward to inward discovery at the heart of our longings to step away from the paved roads and noisy bustle of civilization? As the element of the extreme makes clear, part of the pull comes from the thrill of facing dangers of one sort or another. But can people really be wired in such a way that many of them are willing to risk dying for the sake of a brief moment of accelerated heart-rate and a story they can lovingly exaggerate into their old age?
David Grann is in front
            The catalogue of dangers Fawcett and his companions routinely encountered in the Amazon is difficult to read about without experiencing a viscerally unsettling glimmer of the sensations associated with each affliction. The biologist James Murray, who had accompanied Ernest Shackleton on his mission to Antarctica in 1907, joined Fawcett’s team for one of its journeys into the South American jungle four years later. This much different type of exploration didn’t turn out nearly as well for him. One of Fawcett’s sturdiest companions, Henry Costin, contracted malaria on that particular expedition and became delirious with the fever. “Murray, meanwhile,” Grann writes,
seemed to be literally coming apart. One of his fingers grew inflamed after brushing against a poisonous plant. Then the nail slid off, as if someone had removed it with pliers. Then his right hand developed, as he put it, a “very sick, deep suppurating wound,” which made it “agony” even to pitch his hammock. Then he was stricken with diarrhea. Then he woke up to find what looked like worms in his knee and arm. He peered closer. They were maggots growing inside him. He counted fifty around his elbow alone. “Very painful now and again when they move,” Murray wrote. (135)
The thick clouds of mosquitoes leave every traveler pocked and swollen and nearly all of them get sick sooner or later. On these journeys, according to Fawcett, “the healthy person was regarded as a freak, an exception, extraordinary” (100). This observation was somewhat boastful; Fawcett himself remained blessedly immune to contagion throughout most of his career as an explorer.
Percy Fawcett
            Hammocks are required at night to avoid poisonous or pestilence-carrying ants. Pit vipers abound. The men had to sleep with nets draped over them to ward off the incessantly swarming insects. Fawcett and his team even fell prey to vampire bats. “We awoke to find our hammocks saturated with blood,” he wrote, “for any part of our persons touching the mosquito-nets or protruding beyond them were attacked by the loathsome animals” (127). Such wounds, they knew, could spell their doom the next time they waded into the water of the Amazon. “When bathing,” Grann writes, “Fawcett nervously checked his body for boils and cuts. The first time he swam across the river, he said, ‘there was an unpleasant sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.’ In addition to piranhas, he dreaded candirus and electric eels, or puraques”(91). Candirus are tiny catfish notorious for squirming their way up human orifices like the urethra, where they remain lodged to parasitize the bloodstream (although this tendency of theirs turns out to be a myth). But piranhas and eels aren’t even the most menacing monsters in the Amazon. As Grann writes,
One day Fawcett spied something along the edge of the sluggish river. At first it looked like a fallen tree, but it began undulating toward the canoes. It was bigger than an electric eel, and when Fawcett’s companions saw it they screamed. Fawcett lifted his rifle and fired at the object until smoke filled the air. When the creature ceased to move, the men pulled a canoe alongside it. It was an anaconda. In his reports to the Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett insisted that it was longer than sixty feet. (92)
This was likely an exaggeration since the record documented length for an anaconda is just under 27 feet, and yet the men considered their mission a scientific one and so would’ve striven for objectivity. Fawcett even unsheathed his knife to slice off a piece of the snake’s flesh for a specimen jar, but as he broke the skin it jolted back to life and made a lunge at the men in the canoe who panicked and pulled desperately at the oars. Fawcett couldn’t convince his men to return for another attempt.
            Though Fawcett had always been fascinated by stories of hidden treasures and forgotten civilizations, the ostensible purpose of his first trip into the Amazon Basin was a surveying mission. As an impartial member of the British Royal Geographical Society, he’d been commissioned by the Bolivian and Brazilian governments to map out their borders so they could avoid a land dispute. But over time another purpose began to consume Fawcett. “Inexplicably,” he wrote, “amazingly—I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again” (116). In 1911, the archeologist Hiram Bingham, with the help of local guides, discovered the colossal ruins of Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes. News of the discovery “fired Fawcett’s imagination” (168), according to Grann, and he began cobbling together evidence he’d come across in the form of pottery shards and local folk histories into a theory about a lost civilization deep in the Amazon, in what many believed to be a “counterfeit paradise,” a lush forest that seemed abundantly capable of sustaining intense agriculture but in reality could only support humans who lived in sparsely scattered tribes.
            Percy Harrison Fawcett’s character was in many ways an embodiment of some of the most paradoxical currents of his age. A white explorer determined to conquer unmapped regions, he was nonetheless appalled by his fellow Englishmen’s treatment of indigenous peoples in South America. At the time, rubber was for the Amazon what ivory was for the Belgian Congo, oil is today in the Middle East, and diamonds are in many parts of central and western Africa. When the Peruvian Amazon Company, a rubber outfit whose shares were sold on the London Stock Exchange, attempted to enslave Indians for cheap labor, it lead to violent resistance which culminated in widespread torture and massacre. Sir Roger Casement, a British consul general who conducted an investigation of the PAC’s practices, determined that this one rubber company alone was responsible for the deaths of thirty thousand Indians. Grann writes,
Long before the Casement report became public, in 1912, Fawcett denounced the atrocities in British newspaper editorials and in meetings with government officials. He once called the slave traders “savages” and “scum.” Moreover, he knew that the rubber boom had made his own mission exceedingly more difficult and dangerous. Even previously friendly tribes were now hostile to foreigners. Fawcett was told of one party of eighty men in which “so many of them were killed with poisoned arrows that the rest abandoned the trip and retired”; other travelers were found buried up to their waists and left to be eaten by alive by fire ants, maggots, and bees. (90)
Fawcett, despite the ever looming threat of attack, was equally appalled by many of his fellow explorers’ readiness to resort to shooting at Indians who approached them in a threatening manner. He had much more sympathy for the Indian Protection Service, whose motto was, “Die if you must, but never kill” (163), but he prided himself on being able to come up with clever ways to entice tribesmen to let his teams pass through their territories without violence. Once, when arrows started raining down on his team’s canoes from the banks, he ordered his men not to flee and instead had one of them start playing his accordion while the rest of them sang to the tune—and it actually worked (148).
            But Fawcett was no softy. He was notorious for pushing ahead at a breakneck pace and showing nothing but contempt for members of his own team who couldn’t keep up owing to a lack of conditioning or fell behind owing to sickness. James Murray, the veteran of Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition whose flesh had become infested with maggots, experienced Fawcett’s monomania for maintaining progress firsthand. “This calm admission of the willingness to abandon me,” Murray wrote, “was a queer thing to hear from an Englishman, though it did not surprise me, as I had gauged his character long before” (137). Eventually, Fawcett did put his journey on hold to search out a settlement where they might find help for the dying man. When they came across a frontiersman with a mule, they got him to agree to carry Murray out of the jungle, allowing the rest of the team to continue with their expedition. To everyone’s surprise, Murray, after disappearing for a while, turned up alive—and furious. “Murray accused Fawcett of all but trying to murder him,” Grann writes, “and was incensed that Fawcett had insinuated that he was a coward” (139).
The theory of a lost civilization crystalized in the explorer’s mind when he found a document written by a Portuguese bandeirante—soldier of fortune—describing “a large, hidden, and very ancient city… discovered in the year 1753” (180) while rummaging through old records at the National Library of Brazil. As Grann explains,
Fawcett narrowed down the location. He was sure that he had found proof of archaeological remains, including causeways and pottery, scattered throughout the Amazon. He even believed that there was more than a single ancient city—the one the bandeirante described was most likely, given the terrain, near the eastern Brazilian state of Bahia. But Fawcett, consulting archival records and interviewing tribesmen, had calculated that a monumental city, along with possibly even remnants of its population, was in the jungle surrounding the Xingu River in the Brazilian Mato Grasso. In keeping with his secretive nature, he gave the city a cryptic and alluring name, one that, in all his writings and interviews, he never explained. He called it simply Z. (182)
Fawcett was planning a mission for the specific purpose of finding Z when he was called by the Royal Geographical Society to serve in the First World War. The case for Z had been up till that point mostly based on scientific curiosity, though there was naturally a bit of the Indiana Jones dyad—“fortune and glory”—sharpening his already keen interest. Ever since Hernan Cortes marched into the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in 1519, and Francisco Pizarro conquered Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, fourteen years later, there had been rumors of a city overflowing with gold called El Dorado, literally “the gilded man,” after an account by the sixteenth century chronicler Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo of a king who covered his body every day in gold dust only to wash it away again at night (169-170). It’s impossible to tell how many thousands of men died while searching for that particular lost city.
            Fawcett, however, when faced with the atrocities of industrial-scale war, began to imbue Z with an altogether different sort of meaning. As a young man, he and his older brother Edmund had been introduced to Buddhism and the occult by a controversial figure named Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. To her followers, she was simply Madame Blavatsky. “For a moment during the late nineteenth century,” Grann writes, “Blavatsky, who claimed to be psychic, seemed on the threshold of founding a lasting religious movement” (46). It was called theosophy—“wisdom of the gods.” “In the past, Fawcett’s interest in the occult had been largely an expression of his youthful rebellion and scientific curiosity,” Grann explains, “and had contributed to his willingness to defy the prevailing orthodoxies of his own society and to respect tribal legends and religions.” In the wake of horrors like the Battle of the Somme, though, he started taking otherworldly concerns much more seriously. According to Grann, at this point,
his approach was untethered from his rigorous RGS training and acute powers of observation. He imbibed Madame Blavatsky’s most outlandish teachings about Hyperboreans and astral bodies and Lords of the Dark Face and keys to unlocking the universe—the Other World seemingly more tantalizing than the present one. (190)
It was even rumored that Fawcett was basing some of his battlefield tactics on his use of a Ouija board.
Brian Fawcett, Percy’s son and compiler of his diaries and letters into the popular volume Expedition Fawcett, began considering the implications of his father’s shift away from science years after he and Brian’s older brother Jack had failed to return from Fawcett’s last mission in search of Z. Grann writes,
Brian started questioning some of the strange papers that he had found among his father’s collection, and never divulged. Originally, Fawcett had described Z in strictly scientific terms and with caution: “I do not assume that ‘The City’ is either large or rich.” But by 1924 Fawcett had filled his papers with reams of delirious writings about the end of the world and about a mystical Atlantean kingdom, which resembled the Garden of Eden. Z was transformed into “the cradle of all civilizations” and the center of one of Blavatsky’s “White Lodges,” where a group of higher spiritual beings help to direct the fate of the universe. Fawcett hoped to discover a White Lodge that had been there since “the time of Atlantis,” and to attain transcendence. Brian wrote in his diary, “Was Daddy’s whole conception of ‘Z,’ a spiritual objective, and the manner of reaching it a religious allegory?” (299)
Grann suggests that the success of Blavatsky and others like her was a response to the growing influence of science and industrialization. “The rise of science in the nineteenth century had had a paradoxical effect,” he writes:
while it undermined faith in Christianity and the literal word of the Bible, it also created an enormous void for someone to explain the mysteries of the universe that lay beyond microbes and evolution and capitalist greed… The new powers of science to harness invisible forces often made these beliefs seem more credible, not less. If phonographs could capture human voices, and if telegraphs could send messages from one continent to the other, then couldn’t science eventually peel back the Other World? (47)
Even Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a close friend of Fawcett and whose book The Lost World was inspired by Fawcett’s accounts of his expeditions in the Amazon, was an ardent supporter of investigations into the occult. Grann quotes him as saying, “I suppose I am Sherlock Holmes, if anybody is, and I say that the case for spiritualism is absolutely proved” (48).
            But pseudoscience—equal parts fraud and self-delusion—was at least a century old by the time H.P. Blavatsky began peddling it, and, tragically, ominously, it’s alive and well today. In the 1780s, electro-magnetism was the invisible force whose nature was being brought to light by science. The German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, from whom we get the term “mesmerize,” took advantage of these discoveries by positing a force called “animal magnetism” that runs through the bodies of all living things. Mesmer spent most of the decade in Paris, and in 1784 King Louis XVI was persuaded to appoint a committee to investigate Mesmer’s claims. One of the committee members, Benjamin Franklin, you’ll recall, knew something about electricity. Mesmer in fact liked to use one of Franklin’s own inventions, the glass harmonica (not that type of harmonica), as a prop for his dramatic demonstrations. The chemist and pioneer of science Antoine Lavoisier was the lead investigator though. (Ten years after serving on the committee, Lavoisier would fall victim to the invention of yet another member, Dr. Guillotine.)
            Mesmer claimed that illnesses were caused by blockages in the flow of animal magnetism through the body, and he carried around a stack of printed testimonials on the effectiveness of his cures. If the idea of energy blockage as the cause of sickness sounds familiar to you, so too will Mesmer’s methods for unblocking them. He, or one of his “adepts,” would establish some kind of physical contact so they could find the body’s magnetic poles. It usually involved prolonged eye contact and would eventually lead to a “crisis,” which meant the subject would fall back and begin to shake all over until she (they were predominantly women) lost consciousness. If you’ve seen scenes of faith healers in action, you have the general idea. After undergoing several exposures to this magnetic treatment culminating in crisis, the suffering would supposedly abate and the mesmerist would chalk up another cure. Tellingly, when Mesmer caught wind of some of the experimental methods the committee planned to use he refused to participate. But then a man named Charles Deslon, one of Mesmer’s chief disciples, stepped up.
            The list of ways Lavoisier devised to test the effectiveness of Deslon’s ministrations is long and amusing. At one point, he blindfolded a woman Deslon had treated before, telling her she was being magnetized right then and there, even though Deslon wasn’t even in the room. The suggestion alone was nonetheless sufficient to induce a classic crisis. In another experiment, the men replaced a door in Franklin’s house with a paper partition and had a seamstress who was supposed to be especially sensitive to magnetic effects sit in a chair with its back against the paper. For half an hour, an adept on the other side of the partition attempted to magnetize her through the paper, but all the while she just kept chatting amiably with the gentlemen in the room. When the adept finally revealed himself, though, he was able to induce a crisis in her immediately. The ideas of animal magnetism and magnetic cures were declared a total sham. Lafayette, who brought French reinforcements to the Americans in the early 1780s, hadn’t heard about the debunking and tried to introduce the practice of mesmerism to the newly born country. But another prominent student of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, would have none of it.
            Madame Blavatsky was cagey enough never to allow the supernatural abilities she claimed to have be put to the test. But around the same time Fawcett was exploring the Amazon another of Conan Doyle’s close friends, the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, was busy conducting explorations of his own into the realm of spirits. They began in 1913 when Houdini’s mother died and, grief-stricken, he turned to mediums in an effort to reconnect with her. What happened instead was that, one after another, he caught out every medium in some type of trickery and found he was able to explain the deceptions behind all the supposedly supernatural occurrences of the séances he attended. Seeing the spiritualists as fraudsters exploiting the pain of their marks, Houdini became enraged. He ended up attending hundreds of séances, usually disguised as an old lady, and as soon as he caught the medium performing some type of trickery he would stand up, remove the disguise, and proclaim, “I am Houdini, and you are a fraud.”
            Houdini went on to write an exposé, A Magician among the Spirits, and he liked to incorporate common elements of séances into his stage shows to demonstrate how easy they were for a good magician to recreate. In 1922, two years before Fawcett disappeared with his son Jack while searching for Z, Scientific American Magazine asked Houdini to serve on a committee to further investigate the claims of spiritualists. The magazine even offered a cash prize to anyone who could meet some basic standards of evidence to establish the validity of their claims. The prize went unclaimed. After Houdini declared one of Conan Doyle's favorite mediums a fraud, the two men had a bitter falling out, the latter declaring the prior an enemy of his cause. (Conan Doyle was convinced Houdini himself must've had supernatural powers and was inadvertently using them to sabotage the mediums.) The James Randi Educational Foundation, whose founder also began as a magician but then became an investigator of paranormal claims, currently offers a considerably larger cash prize (a million dollars) to anyone who can pass some well-designed test and prove they have psychic powers. To date, a thousand applicants have tried to win the prize, but none have made it through preliminary testing.
Houdini and his wife Bess demonstrating seance tricks. He
promised to contact her from beyond if he could, but finally
she gave up, saying, "10 years is long enough to wait for any
            So Percy Fawcett was searching, it seems, for two very different cities; one was based on evidence of a pre-Columbian society and the other was a product of his spiritual longing. Grann writes about a businessman who insists Fawcett disappeared because he actually reached this second version of Z, where he transformed into some kind of pure energy, just as James Redfield suggests happened to the entire Mayan civilization in his New Age novel The Celestine Prophecy. Apparently, you can take pilgrimages to a cave where Fawcett found this portal to the Other World. The website titled “The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett” enjoins visitors: “Follow your destiny to Ibez where Colonel Fawcett lives an everlasting life.”
           Today’s spiritualists and pseudoscientists rely more heavily on deliberately distorted and woefully dishonest references to quantum physics than they do on magnetism. But the differences are only superficial. The fundamental shift that occurred with the advent of science was that ideas could now be divided—some with more certainty than others—into two categories: those supported by sound methods and a steadfast devotion to following the evidence wherever it leads and those that emerge more from vague intuitions and wishful thinking. No sooner had science begun to resemble what it is today than people started trying to smuggle their favorite superstitions across the divide.
            Not much separates New Age thinking from spiritualism—or either of them from long-established religion. They all speak to universal and timeless human desires. Following the evidence wherever it leads often means having to reconcile yourself to hard truths. As Carl Sagan writes in his indispensable paean to scientific thinking, Demon-Haunted World,
Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for… In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction for spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance… At the heart of some pseudoscience (and some religion also, New Age and Old) is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes. (14)
As the website for one of the most recent New Age sensations, The Secret, explains, “The Secret teaches us that we create our lives with every thought every minute of every day.” (It might be fun to compare The Secret to Madame Blavatsky’s magnum opus The Secret Doctrine—but not my kind of fun.)
That spiritualism and pseudoscience satisfy emotional longings raises the question: what’s the harm in entertaining them? Isn’t it a little cruel for skeptics like Lavoisier, Houdini, and Randi to go around taking the wrecking ball to people’s beliefs, which they presumably depend on for consolation, meaning, and hope? Indeed, the wildfire of credulity, charlatanry, and consumerist epistemology—whereby you’re encouraged to believe whatever makes you look and feel the best—is no justification for hostility toward believers. The hucksters, self-deluded or otherwise, who profit from promulgating nonsense do however deserve, in my opinion, to be very publicly humiliated. Sagan points out too that when we simply keep quiet in response to other people making proclamations we know to be absurd, “we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate” (298). In such a climate,
Spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available. Skeptical treatments are much harder to find. Skepticism does not sell well. A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment. (5)
Consumerist epistemology is also the reason why creationism and climate change denialism are immune from refutation—and is likely responsible for the difficulty we face in trying to bridge the political divide. No one can decide what should constitute evidence when everyone is following some inner intuitive light to the truth. On a more personal scale, you forfeit any chance you have at genuine discovery—either outward or inward—when you drastically lower the bar for acceptable truths to make sure all the things you really want to be true can easily clear it.
            On the other hand, there are also plenty of people out there given to rolling their eyes anytime they’re informed of strangers’ astrological signs moments after meeting them (the last woman I met is a Libra). It’s not just skeptics and trained scientists who sense something flimsy and immature in the characters of New Agers and the trippy hippies. That’s probably why people are so eager to take on burdens and experience hardship in the name of their beliefs. That’s probably at least part of the reason too why people risk their lives exploring jungles and wildernesses. If a dude in a tie-dye shirt says he discovered some secret, sacred truth while tripping on acid, you’re not going to take him anywhere near as seriously as you do people like Joseph Conrad, who journeyed into the heart of darkness, or Percy Fawcett, who braved the deadly Amazon in search of ancient wisdom.
Michael Heckenberger
            The story of the Fawcett mission undertaken in the name of exploration and scientific progress actually has a happy ending—one you don’t have to be a crackpot or a dupe to appreciate. Fawcett himself may not have had the benefit of modern imaging and surveying tools, but he was also probably too distracted by fantasies of White Lodges to see much of the evidence at his feet. David Grann made a final stop on his own Amazon journey to seek out the Kuikuro Indians and the archeologist who was staying with them, Michael Heckenberger. Grann writes,
Altogether, he had uncovered twenty pre-Columbian settlements in the Xingu, which had been occupied roughly between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1600. The settlements were about two to three miles apart and were connected by roads. More astounding, the plazas were laid out along cardinal points, from east to west, and the roads were positioned at the same geometric angles. (Fawcett said that Indians had told him legends that described “many streets set at right angles to one another.”) (313)
These were the types of settlements Fawcett had discovered real evidence for. They probably wouldn’t have been of much interest to spiritualists, but their importance to the fields of archeology and anthropology are immense. Grann records from his interview:
“Anthropologists,” Heckenberger said, “made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That’s why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements that, later, no one could ever find.” (317)
Carl Sagan describes a “soaring sense of wonder” as a key ingredient to both good science and bad. Pseudoscience triggers our wonder switches with heedless abandon. But every once in a while findings that are backed up with solid evidence are just as satisfying. “For a thousand years,” Heckenberger explains to Grann,
the Xinguanos had maintained artistic and cultural traditions from this highly advanced, highly structured civilization. He said, for instance, that the present-day Kuikuro village was still organized along the east and west cardinal points and its paths were aligned at right angles, though its residents no longer knew why this was the preferred pattern. Heckenberger added that he had taken a piece of pottery from the ruins and shown it to a local maker of ceramics. It was so similar to present-day pottery, with its painted exterior and reddish clay, that the potter insisted it had been made recently…. “To tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where there isn’t written history where the continuity is so clear as right here,” Heckenberger said. (318)

[The PBS series "Secrets of the Dead" devoted a show to Fawcett and you can watch the whole episode online.]

Also read The Self-Transcendence Price-Tag: A Review of Alex Stone's Fooling Houdini

Intuition vs. Science: What's Wrong with Your Thinking, Fast and Slow

From Completely Useless to Moderately Useful
            In 1955, a twenty-one-year-old Daniel Kahneman was assigned the formidable task of creating an interview procedure to assess the fitness of recruits for the Israeli army. Kahneman’s only qualification was his bachelor’s degree in psychology, but the state of Israel had only been around for seven years at the time so the Defense Forces were forced to satisfice. In the course of his undergraduate studies, Kahneman had discovered the writings of a psychoanalyst named Paul Meehl, whose essays he would go on to “almost memorize” as a graduate student. Meehl’s work gave Kahneman a clear sense of how he should go about developing his interview technique.

If you polled psychologists today to get their predictions for how successful a young lieutenant inspired by a book written by a psychoanalyst would be in designing a personality assessment protocol—assuming you left out the names—you would probably get some dire forecasts. But Paul Meehl wasn’t just any psychoanalyst, and Daniel Kahneman has gone on to become one of the most influential psychologists in the world. The book whose findings Kahneman applied to his interview procedure was Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence, which Meehl lovingly referred to as “my disturbing little book.” Kahneman explains,

Meehl reviewed the results of 20 studies that had analyzed whether clinical predictions based on the subjective impressions of trained professionals were more accurate than statistical predictions made by combining a few scores or ratings according to a rule. In a typical study, trained counselors predicted the grades of freshmen at the end of the school year. The counselors interviewed each student for forty-five minutes. They also had access to high school grades, several aptitude tests, and a four-page personal statement. The statistical algorithm used only a fraction of this information: high school grades and one aptitude test. (222)

Daniel Kahneman
The findings for this prototypical study are consistent with those arrived at by researchers over the decades since Meehl released his book:

The number of studies reporting comparisons of clinical and statistical predictions has increased to roughly two hundred, but the score in the contest between algorithms and humans has not changed. About 60% of the studies have shown significantly better accuracy for the algorithms. The other comparisons scored a draw in accuracy, but a tie is tantamount to a win for the statistical rules, which are normally much less expensive to use than expert judgment. No exception has been convincingly documented. (223)       

            Kahneman designed the interview process by coming up with six traits he thought would have direct bearing on a soldier’s success or failure, and he instructed the interviewers to assess the recruits on each dimension in sequence. His goal was to make the process as systematic as possible, thus reducing the role of intuition. The response of the recruitment team will come as no surprise to anyone: “The interviewers came close to mutiny” (231). They complained that their knowledge and experience were being given short shrift, that they were being turned into robots. Eventually, Kahneman was forced to compromise, creating a final dimension that was holistic and subjective. The scores on this additional scale, however, seemed to be highly influenced by scores on the previous scales.

When commanding officers evaluated the new recruits a few months later, the team compared the evaluations with their predictions based on Kahneman’s six scales. “As Meehl’s book had suggested,” he writes, “the new interview procedure was a substantial improvement over the old one… We had progressed from ‘completely useless’ to ‘moderately useful’” (231).   

Amos Tversky
            Kahneman recalls this story at about the midpoint of his magnificent, encyclopedic book Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is just one in a long series of run-ins with people who don’t understand or can’t accept the research findings he presents to them, and it is neatly woven into his discussions of those findings. Each topic and each chapter feature a short test that allows you to see where you fall in relation to the experimental subjects. The remaining thread in the tapestry is the one most readers familiar with Kahneman’s work most anxiously anticipated—his friendship with AmosTversky, with whom he shared the Nobel prize in economics in 2002.

Most of the ideas that led to experiments that led to theories which made the two famous and contributed to the founding of an entire new field, behavioral economics, were borne of casual but thrilling conversations both found intrinsically rewarding in their own right. Reading this book, as intimidating as it appears at a glance, you get glimmers of Kahneman’s wonder at the bizarre intricacies of his own and others’ minds, flashes of frustration at how obstinately or casually people avoid the implications of psychology and statistics, and intimations of the deep fondness and admiration he felt toward Tversky, who died in 1996 at the age of 59.

Pointless Punishments and Invisible Statistics

            When Kahneman begins a chapter by saying, “I had one of the most satisfying eureka experiences of my career while teaching flight instructors in the Israeli Air Force about the psychology of effective training” (175), it’s hard to avoid imagining how he might have relayed the incident to Amos years later. It’s also hard to avoid speculating about what the book might’ve looked like, or if it ever would have been written, if he were still alive. The eureka experience Kahneman had in this chapter came about, as many of them apparently did, when one of the instructors objected to his assertion, in this case that “rewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes.” The instructor insisted that over the long course of his career he’d routinely witnessed pilots perform worse after praise and better after being screamed at. “So please,” the instructor said with evident contempt, “don’t tell us that reward works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” Kahneman, characteristically charming and disarming, calls this “a joyous moment of insight” (175).

            The epiphany came from connecting a familiar statistical observation with the perceptions of an observer, in this case the flight instructor. The problem is that we all have a tendency to discount the role of chance in success or failure. Kahneman explains that the instructor’s observations were correct, but his interpretation couldn’t have been more wrong.

Francis Galton, who first
described regression to the mean
What he observed is known as regression to the mean, which in that case was due to random fluctuations in the quality of performance. Naturally, he only praised a cadet whose performance was far better than average. But the cadet was probably just lucky on that particular attempt and therefore likely to deteriorate regardless of whether or not he was praised. Similarly, the instructor would shout into the cadet’s earphones only when the cadet’s performance was unusually bad and therefore likely to improve regardless of what the instructor did. The instructor had attached a causal interpretation to the inevitable fluctuations of a random process. (175-6)

The roster of domains in which we fail to account for regression to the mean is disturbingly deep. Even after you’ve learned about the phenomenon it’s still difficult to recognize the situations you should apply your understanding of it to. Kahneman quotes statistician David Freedman to the effect that whenever regression becomes pertinent in a civil or criminal trial the side that has to explain it will pretty much always lose the case. Not understanding regression, however, and not appreciating how it distorts our impressions has implications for even the minutest details of our daily experiences. “Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us,” Kahneman writes, “and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty” (176). Probability is a bitch.

The Illusion of Skill in Stock-Picking

            Probability can be expensive too. Kahneman recalls being invited to give a lecture to advisers at an investment firm. To prepare for the lecture, he asked for some data on the advisers’ performances and was given a spreadsheet for investment outcomes over eight years. When he compared the numbers statistically, he found that none of the investors was consistently more successful than the others. The correlation between the outcomes from year to year was nil. When he attended a dinner the night before the lecture “with some of the top executives of the firm, the people who decide on the size of bonuses,” he knew from experience how tough a time he was going to have convincing them that “at least when it came to building portfolios, the firm was rewarding luck as if it were a skill.” Still, he was amazed by the execs’ lack of shock:

We all went on calmly with our dinner, and I have no doubt that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before. The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions—and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem—are simply not absorbed. (216)

The scene that follows echoes the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s classic paean to skepticism Demon-Haunted World, where Sagan recounts being bombarded with questions about science by a driver who was taking him from the airport to an auditorium where he was giving a lecture. He found himself explaining to the driver again and again that what he thought was science—Atlantis, aliens, crystals—was, in fact, not. "As we drove through the rain," Sagan writes, "I could see him getting glummer and glummer. I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life" (4). In Kahneman’s recollection of his drive back to the airport after his lecture, he writes of a conversation he had with his own driver, one of the execs he’d dined with the night before. 

He told me, with a trace of defensiveness, “I have done very well for the firm and no one can take that away from me.” I smiled and said nothing. But I thought, “Well, I took it away from you this morning. If your success was due mostly to chance, how much credit are you entitled to take for it? (216)

Blinking at the Power of Intuitive Thinking

Malcolm Gladwell
            It wouldn’t surprise Kahneman at all to discover how much stories like these resonate. Indeed, he must’ve considered it a daunting challenge to conceive of a sensible, cognitively easy way to get all of his vast knowledge of biases and heuristics and unconscious, automatic thinking into a book worthy of the science—and worthy too of his own reputation—while at the same time tying it all together with some intuitive overarching theme, something that would make it read more like a novel than an encyclopedia. Malcolm Gladwell faced a similar challenge in writing Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking, but he had the advantages of a less scholarly readership, no obligation to be comprehensive, and the freedom afforded to someone writing about a field he isn’t one of the acknowledged leaders and creators of. Ultimately, Gladwell’s book painted a pleasing if somewhat incoherent picture of intuitive thinking. The power he refers to in the title is over the thoughts and actions of the thinker, not, as many must have presumed, to arrive at accurate conclusions.

It’s entirely possible that Gladwell’s misleading title came about deliberately, since there’s a considerable market for the message that intuition reigns supreme over science and critical thinking. But there are points in his book where it seems like Gladwell himself is confused. Robert Cialdini, Steve Marin, and Noah Goldstein cover some of the same research Kahneman and Gladwell do, but their book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive is arranged in a list format, with each chapter serving as its own independent mini-essay.

Robert Cialdini
Early in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces us to two characters, System 1 and System 2, who pass the controls of our minds back and forth between themselves according the expertise and competency demanded by current exigency or enterprise. System 1 is the more intuitive, easygoing guy, the one who does what Gladwell refers to as “thin-slicing,” the fast thinking of the title. System 2 works deliberately and takes effort on the part of the thinker. Most people find having to engage their System 2—multiply 17 by 24—unpleasant to one degree or another.

The middle part of the book introduces readers to two other characters, ones whose very names serve as a challenge to the field of economics. Econs are the beings market models and forecasts are based on. They are rational, selfish, and difficult to trick. Humans, the other category, show inconsistent preferences, changing their minds depending on how choices are worded or presented, are much more sensitive to the threat of loss than the promise of gain, are sometimes selfless, and not only can be tricked with ease but routinely trick themselves. Finally, Kahneman introduces us to our “Two Selves,” the two ways we have of thinking about our lives, either moment-to-moment—experiences he, along with Mihaly Csikzentmihhalyi (author of Flow) pioneered the study of—or in abstract hindsight. It’s not surprising at this point that there are important ways in which the two selves tend to disagree.

Intuition and Cerebration

 The Econs versus Humans distinction, with its rhetorical purpose embedded in the terms, is plenty intuitive. The two selves idea, despite being a little too redolent of psychoanalysis, also works well. But the discussions about System 1 and System 2 are never anything but ethereal and abstruse. Kahneman’s stated goal was to discuss each of the systems as if they were characters in a plot, but he’s far too concerned with scientifically precise definitions to run with the metaphor. The term system is too bloodless and too suggestive of computer components; it’s too much of the realm of System 2 to be at all satisfying to System 1. The collection of characteristics Thinking links to the first system (see a list below) is lengthy and fascinating and not easily summed up or captured in any neat metaphor. But we all know what Kahneman is talking about. We could use mythological figures, perhaps Achilles or Orpheus for System 1 and Odysseus or Hephaestus for System 2, but each of those characters comes with his own narrative baggage. Not everyone’s System 1 is full of rage like Achilles, or musical like Orpheus. Maybe we could assign our System 1s idiosyncratic totem animals.

Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi
But I think the most familiar and the most versatile term we have for System 1 is intuition. It is a hairy and unpredictable beast, but we all recognize it. System 2 is actually the harder to name because people so often mistake their intuitions for logical thought. Kahneman explains why this is the case—because our cognitive resources are limited our intuition often offers up simple questions as substitutes from more complicated ones—but we must still have a term that doesn’t suggest complete independence from intuition and that doesn’t imply deliberate thinking operates flawlessly, like a calculator. I propose cerebration. The cerebral cortex rests on a substrate of other complex neurological structures. It’s more developed in humans than in any other animal. And the way it rolls trippingly off the tongue is as eminently appropriate as the swish of intuition. Both terms work well as verbs too. You can intuit, or you can cerebrate. And when your intuition is working in integrated harmony with your cerebration you are likely in the state of flow Csikzentmihalyi pioneered the study of.

While Kahneman’s division of thought into two systems never really resolves into an intuitively manageable dynamic, something he does throughout the book, which I initially thought was silly, seems now a quite clever stroke of brilliance. Kahneman has no faith in our ability to clean up our thinking. He’s an expert on all the ways thinking goes awry, and even he catches himself making all the common mistakes time and again. In the introduction, he proposes a way around the impenetrable wall of cognitive illusion and self-justification. If all the people gossiping around the water cooler are well-versed in the language describing biases and heuristics and errors of intuition, we may all benefit because anticipating gossip can have a profound effect on behavior. No one wants to be spoken of as the fool.

Kahneman writes, “it is much easier, as well as far more enjoyable, to identify and label the mistakes of others than to recognize our own.” It’s not easy to tell from his straightforward prose, but I imagine him writing lines like that with a wry grin on his face. He goes on,

Questioning what we believe and want is difficult at the best of times, and especially difficult when we most need to do it, but we can benefit from the informed opinions of others. Many of us spontaneously anticipate how friends and colleagues will evaluate our choices; the quality and content of these anticipated judgments therefore matters. The expectation of intelligent gossip is a powerful motive for serious self-criticism, more powerful than New Year resolutions to improve one’s decision making at work and at home. (3)

So we encourage the education of others to trick ourselves into trying to be smarter in their eyes. Toward that end, Kahneman ends each chapter with a list of sentences in quotation marks—lines you might overhear passing that water cooler if everyone where you work read his book.  I think he’s overly ambitious. At some point in the future, you may hear lines like “They’re counting on denominator neglect” (333) in a boardroom—where people are trying to impress colleagues and superiors—but I seriously doubt you’ll hear it in the break room. Really, what he’s hoping is that people will start talking more like behavioral economists. Though some undoubtedly will, Thinking, Fast and Slow probably won’t ever be as widely read as, say, Freud’s lurid pseudoscientific On the Interpretation of Dreams. That’s a tragedy.

Still, it’s pleasant to think about a group of friends and colleagues talking about something other than football and American Idol.

Characteristics of System 1 (105): Try to come up with a good metaphor.

·         generates impressions, feelings, and inclinations; when endorsed by System 2 these become beliefs, attitudes, and intentions
·         operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort, and no sense of voluntary control
·         can be programmed by System 2 to mobilize attention when particular patterns are detected (search)
·         executes skilled responses and generates skilled intuitions, after adequate training
·         creates a coherent pattern of activated ideas in associative memory
·         links a sense of cognitive ease to illusions of truth, pleasant feelings, and reduced vigilance
·         distinguishes the surprising from the normal
·         infers and invents causes and intentions
·         neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt
·         is biased to believe and confirm
·         exaggerates emotional consistency (halo effect)
·         focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
·         generates a limited set of basic assessments
·         represents sets by norms and prototypes, does not integrate
·         matches intensities across scales (e.g., size and loudness)
·         computes more than intended (mental shotgun)
·         sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one (heuristics)
·         is more sensitive to changes than to states (prospect theory)
·         overweights low probabilities.
·         shows diminishing sensitivity to quantity (psychophysics)
·         responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
·         frames decision problems narrowly, in isolation from one another

Sagan's Foreboding

"I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time--when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness."
Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, 1996

Pseudoscience, Inc.

Last week at a large family gathering I had a chance to talk politics with several of my aunts and uncles. A few of them work in the health care industry, and one of them is from Thailand, having met her husband, my dad’s brother, while he was working there for the State Department. That uncle, a humanist liberal, applied to his position after a stint with the Peace Corps. It was an interesting and knowledgeable and diverse group. But the most interesting exchanges I had that night were with my dad’s youngest brother, the guy who my brothers and I know as the “cool uncle.” Knowing that he’s a conservative—he once gave my grandma an Ann Coulter book for Christmas—I asked him if he was a republican or a libertarian. “I believe government should just stay out of people’s lives,” was his reply.

This uncle has a bachelor’s degree from IU, works in management at a shipping and receiving company, and substitute teaches. He once tutored me in algebra—very effectively. He’s intelligent and, his fondness for Coulter notwithstanding, well informed. At one point in our conversation, I said that I come across a lot of important ideas and arguments while reading libertarian blogs (like but that they discredit themselves in my mind by buying into global warming denialism, so much so that it’s hard for me to take anything else they say or write seriously. I had high hopes at this point that he would reconcile the issue for me, but it turns out that he too is a denialist.

I recently had the intro comp students I teach read the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World, in which he uses an encounter with an intelligent and well-read cab driver, whom he calls Mr. Buckley, as a launch pad for his ruminations on the failure of our education system and media to hit the mark when it comes to science while far too often drifting off into the space of fantasy. “A bright and curious person who relies entirely on popular culture to be informed about something like Atlantis,” Sagan writes, “is hundreds or thousands of times more likely to come upon a fable treated uncritically than a sober and balanced assessment” (5).

When it comes to matters of more economic consequence than lost cities and healing crystals, the science is in for even more abuse. As Sagan reports in what may be the most important chapter of the most important book I’ve ever read, “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,”

“A 1971 internal report of the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation lists as a corporate objective ‘to set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases; a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists” (217).

Compare this to a memo written by PR guru Frank Luntz to Republican members of Congress: “The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” Wrapping up the memo, Luntz strikes an astoundingly cynical and ominous note: “The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is your commitment to sound science” (Reported in Elizabeth Kohlbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, p. 165)

Paleontologist Tim Flannery, in his book The Weather Makers, reports on how fifty corporations whose bottom line depends on the continued use of fossil fuel pooled their money together in 1989 to form a lobbying group called the Global Climate Coalition. Their mission statement: “cast doubt on the theory of global warming” (242). The GCC spent $60 million dollars before disbanding after eleven years. But that was only the beginning of the denialists’ PR bonanza.

And this is déjà vu all over again. Here is Sagan again:
“When the first work was published in the scientific literature in 1953 showing that the substances in cigarette smoke when painted on the backs of rodents produce malignancies, the response of the six major tobacco companies was to initiate a public relations campaign to impugn the research, sponsored by the Sloan Kettering Foundation. This is similar to what the Du Pont Corporation did when the first research was published in 1974 showing that their Freon product attacks the protective ozone layer. There are many other examples” (217). BPA anyone?

By now it should be clear to everyone following the debate that the consensus Luntz was referring to has long since been reached. Not a single scientific organization refutes the reality or the seriousness of the threat of human-induced global warming. The debate is not among scientists—with a few exceptions; it is science after all—but between scientists and the message machine of the fossil fuel industry, who have the will and wherewithal to invest sums that dwarf the combined net worth of Al Gore and Maurice Strong. In America today, we’re dealing with a mediascape where money controls the message—and disturbingly often, our minds too.

As for the substance of my uncle’s argument—the points he made are disconcerting evidence of the power PR has to determine what we believe. Even this intelligent and well read man rolled out the standard denialist boilerplate. I won’t refute his arguments here, as they’ve been ably and amply refuted elsewhere, most accessibly by Peter Sinclair at Climate Denial Crock of the Week. (Concerned that Sinclair's own funding information is not detailed on his site, I emailed him about it. It turns out he gets no funding, from anyone.)

Climate scientists tried to scare us in the 70’s with the threat of global cooling:
CO2 doesn’t drive temperature:
(In response to my refutation of this point, that it’s a straw man, my uncle claimed that Al Gore makes that specific argument. I don’t know if he does or not, and don’t really care. Al Gore is not a climate scientist.)

As for the old canard that volcanoes release more CO2 that humans have in all of history: the best estimates are that volcanoes emit 145-255 million tons a year on average compared to 30 billion tons for human activities. So it's not even close.

Sagan's point is not, as many of my students thought, that we are all ignorant or scientifically illiterate, but rather that it's impossible to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience without researching the provenance of the facts and arguments. Unfortunately, fossil fuel corporations don't properly label their PR products. And who has the time to research all the claims?