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    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Men, computer games and methodological flaws.

    Researchers have appearantly found that reward regions in the brain are more active in men than women when playing computer games and, the researchers conclude that this is why men are more prone to be hooked on computer games. The video game they used in the experiment was "a vertical line (the "wall") in the middle of a computer screen. When the game begins, 10 balls appear to the right of the wall and travel left toward the wall. Each time a ball is clicked, it disappears from the screen. If the balls are kept a certain distance from the wall, the wall moves to the right and the player gains territory" (see picture) and the researchers state that "This is a fairly representative, generic computer game" *sigh*

    This actually reminds of a story I saw on CNN yesterday about the lack of proper defense for the alleged 9/11 terrorists in their upcoming trial. A political scientist claimed that this is the worst thing the US could do if they want "revenge" on the terrorists, because if they are convicted without having a proper defense, this just removes all credibility from the process. I think there's a similar thing going on with these video game experiments. I do not really doubt that there's a grain of truth in the result, but when making such elementary methodological mistakes and mind-numbing generalization, they really are doing themselves a disservice -- it just removes all credibility from the process. I'm not just picking on this experiment in particular, but I've seen a lot of the same problems with the most cited experiments on violence in computer games, including the interesting but far from conclusive research by Craig Anderson.
    What's worse it that the media, when picking up these stories, usually omit any caveats and methodological footnotes, which results in the kinds of headlines that ultimately might sway the public opinion.

    I think the sensible thing to do is to not jump to conlusion on either side. Allow me to make a sweeping generalization on my own: On the one hand, gamers and hackers too often claim that all kinds of so-called piracy is good and that virtual violence has nothing at all to do with real violence, whereas policy makers and media all too often claim that piracy is just ultimately a form of selfishness and that every murderer out there has been playing violent video games (which, even when true, could by at any end of the causal chain). Neither is true, and in championing either extreme it just makes it more difficult for the sound and carefully weighed considerations to come to the front.

    In the words of Jascha Heifetz (which just happened to be the quote of the day on my Google home portal): "No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other."

    Saturday, February 9, 2008

    Searle's rational beer drinking in action

    One of the modern works of philosophy that has influenced me the most is John Searle's Rationality in Action -- but probably not for the right reasons. I do not agree with all of Searle's hypotheses (if they can even be referred to as such), but I do find the book incredibly thought-provoking. One of the reasons is that it reads like a novel. It's a heck of a roller coaster where you find yourself nodding when reading one page, and vehemently shaking your head (or banging it into a wall) when reading the next.

    When I first read the book almost 10 years ago, I used to make fun of it. One of Searle's central theses is that there can be such a thing as desire-independent reasons for action, in contrast with what he terms the classical model. Take the following example. A man orders a beer, drinks the beer, and the bartender asks the customer to pay. According to Searle, I have no desire right there and then to pay for the beer; there is nothing in my motivational set that would give me a reason to pay for the beer. According to Searle, the reason for paying for the beer is not a desire to pay that I have right there and then, but a desire-independent reason that I created at the time of ordering the beer. I think the gut reaction to this argument for most readers, including myself, is that I do have a number of desire-dependent reasons to pay for the beer: I desire not to get punched by the bartender, forced to do the dishes, lose face in front of my drinking buds, be denied another beer and so forth. I feel really slow for not really realizing it until about the third time I read the book, but this is the wrong way to see it. Searle's claim becomes more understandable if we look at it in terms of rational justification. Let's say I order a beer, drinks it, and then the opportunity arise that I can get away with not paying for the beer at all. Surely, many would take the opportunity and not pay for the beer, but let us say that I decide to actually pay for the beer. After having settled the bill (and reminded the bartender that I owed him money), my drinking bud might ask me: "What the heck did you do that for?". In that situation, it would be a perfectly rational thing to claim that "Well, because I ordered it and thereby promised to pay for it". Searle's point is not whether this is the reason why we usually pay (often we only pay because we don't want to face the consequences of not paying), but that the desire-independent reason is a reason for action. It is perfectly rational (and incidentally, ethical) to act upon the reason that I created in the past even though I do not have any desire whatsoever to do so. In other words, if I had no desire to pay for the beer, no general moral desire to keep my promises or any other desire that could possibly motivate paying for the beer, it is still a perfectly rational thing for me to do if I decide to pay for the beer. Once I realized this subtlety, Searle's book made a whole lot more sense and I highly recommend it -- at least for its terminology and ability to provoke thoughts. To continue the novel analogy, Searle is both hero and anti-hero in this book. At some points you will think of him as a cranky, arrogant geezer, but at some points he's the little child that points out the emperor's lack of clothes.