The Bears Are White

Our April issue of Scientific American, a non-peer-reviewed magazine written by scientists for laymen, arrived yesterday. The editorial on page 53 begins with this line: “Humankind has fundamentally altered the planet. But new thinking and actions can prevent us from destroying ourselves.”

This depressed me for several reasons. First of all, while, like most people I know, I am convinced people are negatively affecting the planet, I know that an apparently growing number of people do not agree. Then there’s that second bit about “new thinking and actions.”

New thinking and reasoning? Unfortunately, I have absolutely no hope of that happening. Why? Because of comments like this one to the preview of this article on the Scientific American website: Here’s what someone posting as H2Ov said:

Fact: I did not read this article. I will not pay to support the worship of the progressive environmentalist conscience. Environmentalism is a religion not a science.
. . . .

Theory: Some time between 10,000 BC to 30,000 BC glacier ice tongues were reaching into what is now southern Missouri. Why don’t I know the date? Do you know of any one who was there to observe and record the event?

Opinion: No consistent direct scientific observation data is available to establish that any of the non-facts reported in the previous comments are not true.

To reject without reading was a mindset giveaway. So was the “pay to support” tidbit. Obviously public libraries are as suspect as science, but that’s not what interested me here. Reading this hardly atypical comment about how science is faith rather than method of inquiry and how facts are established only by personal observation, I started thinking about white bears in the north.

No, I’m not referring to whether or not they are endangered. I’m referring to Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria’s pre-WWII experiments with Uzbekistani peasants. After presenting them with syllogisms, he decided they were unable to use standard logical inferences. Instead, they demanded first hand experience as proof, just as does this person posting a response on the SciAm site.

Specifically, I was recalling one of Luria’s most famous syllogistic questions: In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?

Instead of cheerfully inferring from the givens, the peasants said things such as “You’ll have to ask someone who has been there.” From Luria’s viewpoint, the peasants’ refusal to accept the givens and their demand for personal experience showed they couldn’t use logic. Luria, like most college-educated types, labeled the peasants as intellectually deficient because they were unable–or unwilling–to accept standard logic and fulfill the standard expectations of those who habitually use standard logic.

Unfortunately for us college-educated types, something else might be going on here. The Web has some good discussions of what this might be.

Here’s one from Dr. Cosma Shalizi’s “A. R. Luria: The Neuropsychology of Praxis”:

It never crossed Luria’s mind, so far as I can tell, that a bunch of Russian academics, asking questions which clearly indicated that the Russians thought the Uzbeks were idiots, would meet with anything less than full and sincere cooperation. Consider the following dialogue (p. 112) with an illiterate peasant named Nazir-Said:

The following syllogism is presented: There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?
Subject repeats syllogism exactly.
So, are there camels in Germany?
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen German villages.”
Refusal to infer.
The syllogism is repeated.
“Probably there are camels there.”
Repeat what I said.
“There are no camels in Germany, are there camels in B. or not? So probably there are. If it’s a large city, there should be camels there.”
Syllogism breaks down, inference drawn apart from its conditions.
But what do my words suggest?
“Probably there are. Since there are large cities, there should be camels.”
Again a conclusion apart from the syllogism.
But if there aren’t any in all of Germany?
“If it’s a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there.”
But I’m saying that there are no camels in Germany, and this city is in Germany.
“If this village is in a large city, there is probably no room for camels.”

Luria’s interpretation was that Nazir-Said had difficulty with hypothetical syllogistic reasoning, as opposed to more concrete inferences in practical situations, difficulties typical of those “whose cognitive activity was formed by experience and not by systematic instruction or more complex forms of communication” (p. 115). But it’s also easy to interpret this as Nazir-Said parrying the question with a perfectly valid, if enthymemic, syllogism (as it were: “Every large city has camels; B. is a large city; therefore B. has camels”), and then supporting his major premise with another valid syllogism (like: “Every large city has Kazakhs or Kirghiz; Kazakhs and Kirghiz always have camels; therefore every large city has camels”). The greater success of members of collective farms in “solving” the syllogisms might just reflect their greater willingness to cooperate with the Russians. In other words, there is a whole layer of issues here, involving the social relations between the scientists and their subjects, to which Luria turned a blind eye…

Here’s another useful set of observations from Swedish cognitive scientist Peter Peter Gärdenfors in “The Role of Expectations in Reasoning.” He points out that the question is “what is allowed as premises in an argument.” Different groups, according to Gärdenfors, have differing expectations:

After reading Shalizi and Gärdenfors, I’m finally beginning to recognize a few more reasons why the frantic efforts of scientists to warn the world have met with such truculent resistance. Those who espouse an unfettered free market are slick in using science to refute science. From what I can see, they are consciously deceiving others, unconsciously deceiving themselves, or something akin. Those types I understand, However, I wondered about those like H20v. I once thought such people were simply ignorant and would be easy to convince once they understood logical fallacies and such.

Now I no longer think that. I’d been pondering a post reviewing Wikipedia‘s the cognitive biases with regard to those who dismiss scientific findings, but now I see the hopelessness of that. That will not convince a person who reasons as does H20v, no matter how bright he/she may well be.

A bottom up approach is necessary rather than a top down of-course-the-scientific-method-is-valid approach. We need to begin with cultural, learned “expectations.” A friend of mine once said that the only way to argue with a fundamentalist Christian is to be able to quote scripture well. Apparently similar tactics are necessary to persuade those who say mankind cannot alter this planet. Unfortunately, time is already a bit short for that to work.

We are so doomed.



One Response to “The Bears Are White”

  1. rogerthesurf Says:


    Check out my blog and see what you think.

    Once you get past the lampooning (well deserved I think) of the politicians, do you think it is religious or does it use standard logical inferences correctly?

    Even if you dont agree with the conclusions, have you got some scientific logical points to make.

    Look forward to reading your comments



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