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Pattern recognition: backlash

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — on human obstinacy, a change of heart, and what seems to me a major piece from Res Militaris ]

There’s a pattern of backlash that occurs when you present people with facts that don’t fit their preconceptions — they don’t switch, they double up. Here’s the opening of io9‘s report, The Backfire Effect shows why you can’t use facts to win an argument:

“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” isn’t just a maxim for shady politicians and journalists. It’s also the way people often live their lives. One study indicates that there may even be a “backfire effect,” which happens when you show people facts that contradict their opinions.

Then there’s a study — Brendan and Jason Reifler, When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. I won’t go into the details, it’s the pattern it finds that’s of interest to me, but I will note that the title is a tip of the hat to Leon Festinger‘s When Prophecy Fails, a classic study in the same pattern of denial as it applied to a group whose belief in an end time prophecy was not shattered when the day arrived and the world went on as usual…

Here’s how the pattern works:

Participants in the experiments were more likely to experience the Backfire Effect when they sensed that the contradictory information had come from a source that was hostile to their political views. But under a lot of conditions, the mere existence of contradictory facts made people more sure of themselves — or made them claim to be more sure.

Everyone has experienced the frustration of bringing up pertinent facts, in the middle of an argument, and having those facts disregarded. Perhaps the big mistake was not arguing, but bringing up facts in the first place.

Okay? That’s a veeery interesting pattern to think about any time you’re considering ways to persuade people to change their minds during, for instance, a CVE campaign.

I’d like to dig into it a great deal more, of course.


Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for Hizb ut-Tahrir who renounced his membership and is now Chairman of the counter-extremist Quilliam Foundation, seems to have persuaded Tommy Robinson, until recently a leader of the English Defence League, to renounce the EDL and join Qulliam — a move whose results and second-order effects have yet to be seen. Both men, however, offer us examples of people who have in fact changed their minds on matters of profound belief, religious and political, and the odd uncomfortable fact may have played some role in those changes.

The role of anomalies (cf. “outliers”) in Kuhn‘s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions comes to mind.

And if showing people the error of their ways (a very loose equivalent of telling them unwelcome facts, I’ll admit) doesn’t work, here’s another anomaly that I ran across only yesterday, that “proves the rule” by, well, partially disproving it.

Dutch ex-politician Arnoud van Doorn, previously a senior member of Geert Wilders‘ fiercely anti-Islamic party, has changed his mind — or his heart was changed for him, within him, depending on your perspective. He has made the Shahada and is henceforth Muslim himself. In this photo, van Doorn is performing the Hajj, the pilgrimage to circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca:

Do I detect a hint of enantiodromia here?


In closing, I would like to offer this link to an article in Res Militaris by Jean Baechler, titled Outlines of a psychology of war. It’s a weighty piece, as befits its grand sweep, and I believe it throws some light on the obstinacies of the mind to which this post is addressed.

I tried excerpting it, but it appeared to me that each sentence in every paragraph in turn begged to be highlighted, approved, tweaked, questioned, or disagreed with, and I wound up feeling you should read it for yourselves. I’ll be very interested to see if it captures the attention of the ZP readership, and leads to a more extended discussion…


Serpent logics: KarlreMarks and LizzyPearson

Monday, October 7th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — yet another quick dip into the dizzying world of patterns enfolded in tweets ]

My collection of “Serpent logics” or “patterns of thinking” in the miniature format provided by the Twitter-stream got a noble boost today — you can blame my insomnia for my noticing this — from Karl Sharro and Elizabeth Pearson:

Sbarro unwittingly triggered things off by tweeting:

Pearson picked upon the “nested” quality of this tweet, and tweeted back:

and to clarify:


That was neat enough indeed, what with three instances in a row of self-referential tweets, each of which enfolds a previous tweet within it — the pattern I’m always on the look out for, and call “Matrioshka” after those nested Russian dolls — but there was more to come. I turned back — how could I help it — to the first tweet from Sharro:

and searched for the tweet embedded therein:

A little deeper into the conversation, I came across this rejoinder, which sent me off on a further journey:

and lo, the embedded link here led me to a page that contained not one but dozens of tweets, all based on the formula of the three characters went into a bar joke, many of the examples turning Sharro’s mind to matters of philosophy and the Middle East…


They’re all examples of the kind of “collision thinking” that Arthur Koestler specifies as the source of creative insight (aha!), comedy (ha!) and tragedy (aiyyeee!) — but I’ve selected three which represent three of the different patterns I’m intrigued by:

That’s a serpent biting its tail joke, if ever I saw one, a conspiracist take on conspiracism.

Now that, I aver, is a extaordinary example of enantiodromia, or direct reversal.

And for the pattern I call nominal, one can hardly better this play between the word minimalist and its context…


It’s time for me to get minimal, too. I have a quite a long line of “Serpent logics” more or less lined up and ready to go, but putting too many of them in one post gets tedious for the readership, so I’ve cut these examples out of the herd to give you a taste, and will follow up with two mmore selections in a day or two.


Sunday surprise 6: the Game of Broken and Fix

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — problem & solution? comedy & tragedy? cause and effect? I do love me a little Dylan ]

The logical order for these two clips would be the one in the title, but here I’m going to give you the Fix first, and leave you afterwards with the Broken — by all means tell me if I’m wrong:

How successful d’you think that strategy will prove in the world we now live in?

People are talking about Dylan getting the Nobel again. But what does that mean? Everything is broken?


Echevarria and the Irrational in Strategy

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Adam Elkus alerted me to an insightful op-ed by Dr. Antulio Echevarria of SSI:

Op-Ed: Is Strategy Really A Lost Art?

…. Instead, we need to rediscover the value of strategizing relative to the outcome, the product, an individual strategy. The hard truth is that policy does not always need strategy to get what it wants. We have used military force plenty of times in our history without the guiding logic of strategy, and—though critics do not like to admit it—we have made it work often enough for it to be taken seriously. Sometimes what policy wants most is not to be tied to something inflexible, particularly something as inflexible as our strategic process. It is the proverbial machine that goes of itself, and it takes, or almost does, the preparation for and direction of war out of policy’s hands. The question modern-day Clausewitzians really have to answer is whether war has its own logic after all, a logic provided by the dictates, the processes, and the dynamics of making strategy.

      In all the online debates and blog sites concerning strategy, one theme is constant: we call strategy an art, but approach it as a science. We praise creative thinking, but assess our strategies with formulae: strategy = ends + ways + means (the ends we want to achieve + the ways or concepts + the availablemeans). This formula is as recognizable to modern strategists as Einstein’s equation E=mcis to physicists. Each defines its respective field. Like all good math, good strategies consist of balanced equations. As our variables change, we merely rebalance our strategy: scale down the ends, increase the means, or introduce new ways. Like any good equation, our strategy remains valid so long as we keep one half equal to the other. This is a far cry from when military strategy meant the “art of the general” and, by extension, grand strategy meant the “art of the head of state.”

.    If the art of strategy is truly lost, perhaps it is because—despite our rhetoric to the contrary—we really wanted it to be a science all along.

Several comments….
First, Echevarria is correct that it is certainly possible to win ugly, win lucky, win through the other side imploding for internal reasons that have nothing to do with us or to win by unimaginatively, but steadily bludgeoning a much weaker opponent to death while employing a bad strategy or no strategy at all. Finland’s Marshal Mannerheim, for example, repeatedly humiliated Stalin’s immensely larger but poorly led Red Army in the Winter War but the end was never in doubt if Stalin chose to press the issue.  An effective strategy and a Red Army officer corps that were more than lackeys and thoroughly terrorized purge survivors would have markedly improved the USSR’s abysmal military performance, but it would not have changed the longitudinal equation that Stalin had thousands of tanks and planes and potentially millions of soldiers and the Finns did not. The asymmetry between the Soviet Union and Finland was too great; Mannerheim played a weak hand with great skill against an enemy leader whose basic foreign policy outlook was opportunistic yet risk averse ( as Stalin understood the situation at least. He was also a great miscalculator).
When  however that Echevarria writes “Sometimes what policy wants most is not to be tied to something inflexible” he is certainly correct, but the real crux is that it is politicians who want and policy that bends to their desires. Flexibility can be a virtue when a situation is new, has not yet risen to open hostilities or a hedge is required against many dangers. Raised to systemic practice, “flexibility” -meaning a conscious avoidance of the “strategic process – really means that we have embraced an astrategic culture and accepted not just greater political behavior, but elevated the minutia of domestic politics and cynical careerism to displace strategy as the primary calculus for making decisions of war with unsurprisingly poor results.
Lastly, I see merit in Echevarria’s criticism of the tendency to view strategy in algebraic or scientific terms. He’s right that this is an arid reification of strategy from which all chance, passion, genius, stratagems, deception, novelty and coup d’oeil have evaporated. Sometimes, the Czarina dies, the unsinkable ship sinks,  the “rules” get broken and certain victory turns into utter defeat because leaders, with the intuitive mind that Einstein called ” a sacred gift”, seize the moment and do what should have been by rational calculation, impossible. We fail to look for such qualities in ourselves or allow room for their expression and worse, fail to discern them in the enemy.
Strategy is rational, but people doing strategy and the circumstances in which strategy is done often are not.

Serpent logic and related

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — where paradox begets form in phrasing, redux ]

Here for your entertainment and entrainment are some further instances where the tweet doubles back on itself, bites its tail, or otherwise embodies some form of “form” that’s noteworthy in its own right, and possibly indicative of the heart of a problem — think of these tweets as eddies in the flow of things, knots in the wood…

Two arms crossed as in that MC Escher hand-draws-hand piece:

And a net version of the same, aka “tit for tat”:

Speaking of economics, here’s a bit of spiral logic — the economics of spiralling out of control?

And here’s an example of “endless” recursion, as featured in two tweets about “end” times from Barth’s Notes:

and its 2013 equivalent:


Okay, here are some simple sample opposites. First, the weather forecast for Syria:

— spelled our explicitly by Andrew Stroehlein, who tweeted “Sunny with a chance of cluster bombs…” in response.

That one seems fairly fair, but click on the links yourself to see the nuances in King‘s actual statements.


Now for some regular serpents’ tails, from the reasonably light-hearted to the heavier end of the scales:

Okay, here are two from Mikko Hypponen, the first of which is frankly outdated, but still fun:

Angela Watercutter caught the tide at just the right moment with her Wired piece, Skynet Becomes Self-Aware: How to Welcome Our AI Overlords:

The time has come. According to the Terminator clock, at 8:11 p.m. Tuesday, Skynet will become self-aware. And humanity will be screwed. Going by canon set out in the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, Judgment Day should hit Thursday.

Never mind Mikko, this one’s funny too — if and only if one’s also familiar with Wikipedia, which seems plausible in all cases for those who follow twitter — it wins double-honors in fact, hitting it out of the self-reference ball-park and into parallelism as satire:


Namarupa, or “name and form”, has to do with parallelisms between a name and its referent — or what zen might call the “finger pointing” and the moon — always fun:

The next one depends on your knowing that the Greek mythological creature known as a Naiad refers to “any of the nymphs in classical mythology living in and giving life to lakes, rivers, springs, and fountains”:

— aptly named indeed.


We’re almost done — here’s one with a built in time-factor:

It it still there? Aha!


Finally, this isn’t a serpent eating its tail by itself:

— but it becomes one, I’d suggest, when Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011, retweets it!


Until next time…


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