Alien Data

October 1, 2008

A column by Olivia Judson in today’s New York Times touches on both scientific and literary testimony about the self-blindness of human beings. In “Wanted: Intelligent Aliens, for a Research Project,” Judson points out that we are terrible self-analyzers, at least using the tools of our ordinary understanding and perception.

If there is anything living on Mars, it’s going to be weird bacteria or the like, not little green men. Which is a pity. Because what we humans really need is a group of friendly, intelligent aliens to study us, and give us a report on what they find.

The problem is, in many respects it’s difficult for us to study ourselves.

First, there are practical problems. It’s easier, for example, to study organisms with much shorter lives than our own: when organisms have short lives, we can accumulate lots of knowledge about them in a single human lifetime. Hence, we know far more about bacteria, fruit flies and mice than we do about elephants, giant tortoises or sequoia trees.

Another difficulty: it’s hard to do certain sorts of experiments. Many of the experiments we can do on fruit flies would be impractical or unethical to do on people.

But there’s a deeper problem as well: it’s hard for us to see ourselves in an objective way.

Judson gives some good scientific references and some literary testimony about human bias.defoe.jpg She even quotes the 18th century novel Moll Flanders, whose heroine warns young women about the dangers of vanity. I appreciated this mention of Moll Flanders, one of the great instructive books about self-delusion, because from its author comes an answer to Judson’s appeal: we ourselves can be the aliens we seek. Moll Flanders, of course, was not written by an elderly adventuress, but by Daniel Defoe, a novelist, journalist, and connoisseur of human blindness. Moll Flanders is a fictional human, and the words on the page – highly abstract instruments, when you think about it – let us see ourselves as if from the outside.
Among the papers Judson mentions is one by Emily Pronin: “How we see ourselves and how we see others.” Science 320: 1177-1180. (PDF). This is a review article whose footnotes contain an entire education on human nature, and whose moral is that we owe each other a good deal of charity. We tend to judge others based on their outward behavior, not awarding much extra credit for any inward feeling of goodness, which – since we are not inside their head – we cannot perceive. Pronin asks us to perform novelist’s trick of imagination; to indirectly perceive our own self-blindness in the evident self-blindness of others.

Pronin is a psychology professor at Princeton. In another paper, called “Doing Unto Future Selves As You Would Do Unto Others: Psychological Distance and Decision Making” (PDF), Pronin uses some experiments to show that when we make decisions about things that will affect us in the future, we discount the subjective feelings of this future version of our self in much the same way as we discount the subjective feelings of other people in the present. We choose good experiences today even if they will lead to bad experiences tomorrow, because we can’t feel tomorrow. Our future self is a stranger to us.

Many self-quantifiers collect data because they believe it will have some value in guiding their experiments, and in informing their choices. Through collecting data, we fight bias. But by stepping outside ourselves, we also step away from what Pronin, quoting William James, calls the “warmth and intimacy” of our thoughts and feelings. This may be why so much personal data sits around unused. Such data may have implications, but it doesn’t have rewards. I wrote about this problem in my profile of Piotr Wozniak, the inventor of a tool to make people learn things faster. Wozniak thought his software would take over the world. Instead, it is used by a relatively small number of highly motivated, scientifically oriented students; for everybody else, such a tool is not rewarding enough. Most people prefer something like Rosetta Stone, which doesn’t really teach you very much, but which provides a great subjective feeling of learning.

How can we take the experiences of our future selves, and make them subjectively real for ourselves in the present? This is a great problem for self-quantifiers to try to solve. It is key to making our data meaningful. Novelists taught us to feel the inner experiences of strangers. Now, who will make the future feel real?

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