On One Hand

July 3, 2014

A simple trick to stop ‘arguing’ and be really persuasive

Filed under: culture,science — ononehand @ 2:07 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

There’s a tendency to think of persuasion in terms of winning an argument or debate. You’re trying to be rational: you’re thinking that if you defend your position with logic and evidence, and prove that the counter-arguments are false, the other person is now obligated to switch to your view.

If only life were so simple. In your mind you have proven you are right, but the other person is just thinking she or he needs to do some homework to come up with a better rebuttal tomorrow. Once you set someone up as your intellectual adversary they are not going to cross the line to join you.

That might be why political debates don’t have a significant influence on elections, no matter how well one side does or how eloquently the positions are argued. People root for the candidate they already support, and the arguments can stir up enthusiasm but they don’t “convert.” There’s a very different way that candidates vie for votes.

The reality is that people in the day-to-day world believe things because they want to. There are just far too many competing ideas and decisions to make to investigate each one objectively. Everyone is able to weigh different factors — pros and cons — to arrive at an opinion or decision, but the weight people grant to each factor comes down to how much they like and identify with it.

Persuading effectively comes down to this simple approach:


  • Identify an idea that you and your audience can already agree on. (Common values or principles, something you might both say is a problem, a universal need, etc.)
  • Validate your audience’s existing beliefs, observations and experiences.
  • Explain that those same reasons drive you to stand where you do.

And that’s basically it. People are very inclined to side with you simply because you are someone with similar concerns and reached the conclusion you did.

The main goals are to be relatable — the person you are trying to persuade is your peer, not inferior to you — and to emphasize your area of agreement so much that the other factors fade from mind.

Here’s the important part: DO NOT argue points where you disagree. Acknowledge them as valid points and then steer the conversation away from them. No matter how ridiculous you think they are and no matter how strong your evidence against them is, you’re not going to convince people their own interests or ideas are wrong. They will always be a factor, but you can say that a different set of factors (the ones that support your cause) are more compelling for you.



Think back to the last time you observed a political campaign. One thing you won’t see a candidate do is try to get voters to change their minds about their basic ideals and principles. They won’t try to convert liberals into conservatives or convert conservatives into liberals, but the candidates will jump and tumble over each other trying to validate the experiences and values of crucial swing voters.

They’ll say, “We know that families in Ohio are struggling.” (something that they’ve poll-tested to be sure the audience they’re targeting agrees). “Jobs have been shipped overseas, and too many people are worried whether the manufacturing industry — once the backbone of the American economy — is ever going to come back…” (validating the audience’s existing worries and experiences) “…which is why I have a plan to create more than a million new manufacturing jobs over the next five years.”

This candidate might disagree with the target audience when it comes to immigration policy, foreign policy or social issues, but isn’t going to try to sway their minds on those things. She’ll just keep hammering on areas where she and the audience agree, and try to make the election all about those things.



Now I call this a “trick” because that’s what it is; while it comes instinctively to many people, it’s a technique that can help you towards high-minded goals as well as goals that are very selfish and manipulative. If you’re trying to get people to turn against their own interests, eventually they’re going to figure that out and you might never gain their trust again. And if someone senses over time that you’re only feigning commonality to persuade them without being open to their ideas as well, they’re going to get really annoyed and stop listening to you. You’re better off if you’re looking to learn from people as much as to persuade them.

So be genuine and authentic, approach everyone by trying to find your common ground, and stop wasting your energy arguing! (Unless it’s something you really enjoy doing.)

January 10, 2010

What Makes Humans Distinct from Animals?

Filed under: science — ononehand @ 12:00 pm
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My fifth grade teacher once told our class that the difference between humans and animals was an elusive thing called “reason.”

Her definition of reason was basically anything other than automatic behavior. When you hit a dog, she argued, the dog would yelp in pain and run away but know nothing beyond what it shows in that action. The human, on the other hand, would ask “why?” and try to figure out why it was hit so as to avoid it in the future.

She probably wasn’t much of a pet person, because anyone who has a dog knows they definitely do learn from experience, are capable of becoming highly trained and social, and do indeed seek to avoid punishment. But another pertinent bit of information is that my teacher was an evangelical Christian, who believed that humans have souls and animals do not. And if our soul, as according to Judeo-Christian thought, contains the consciousnesss, it would indeed be logical to conclude that animals are unconscious. In that worldview, God made man and animals through two distinct acts, and that is how human societies viewed animals for thousands of years of history before Darwin.

Since the beginning of modern science we’ve recognized that humans are an animal species, not separate at all. Put a ten year old girl, a male Labrador retriever, and a pear tree in a row. All three are life forms, and Judeo-Christian philosophy would say that the human is distinct and the dog and the pear tree are similar as un-souled living things. Science would inform us otherwise, insisting that when compared to the plant, the human and the dog are very, very much alike.

Science also tells us that the center of consciousness is the brain, which our young girl and Labrador share. They not only both have brains, but very similar brains, with an enlarged, two-hemisphere cerebrum and a smaller cerebellum, a visual cortex in the rear a memory center in the in the middle. A young girl and a dog show similar instinctive ways of communicating pleasure and pain through sounds and gestures, and will entertain complex social behaviors. They both develop emotional bonds with peers and have the capability of bonding across species. They not only like to be around others, but will show a preference for certain individuals whom they can recognize, form communities, and display anxiety and sadness when they are separated from those they love. Their neurotransmitters follow the same pathways – dogs respond to the same antidepressant medications that humans do, and in the same way.

Science also tells us that the same act of creation generated dogs and humans in one fell swoop. For billions of years of Earth’s history, the species that would eventually branch into dogs and humans was the exact same lineage and creature. All placental mammals – a family that ranges from fruit bats to Wooly Mammoths – shared a common ancestor 125 million of years ago, and the order Carnivora (which contains dogs) and Primates have a common ancestor much than that. Humans and any other mammal that gives live birth has been distinct for less than 5 percent of the timeline of life on Earth.

It becomes necessary to say, not “what makes humans distinct from animals?” but rather, what makes animal species distinct from each other? A species is formally defined as a population of organisms that will not reproduce sexually with other populations in the wild, but the boundaries blur. Wolves and coyotes sometimes cross-breed in the wild, horses and donkeys breed to make mules and scientists have often found stray genetic material from one species in another species. 30,000 years ago, humans and Neanderthals may have been two distinct species that occasionally produced hybrids. There were other “species” or subspecies of human that were less likely to mate with humans, and many of them co-existed with Homo sapiens. So which of these were humans, and which were animals? It also turns out than Homo sapiens and Pan troglodytes (chimps) have more in common with each other than chimpanzees have with their next closest relative, gorillas, and there is evidence that a chimpanzee ancestor once had larger brains and then regressed for some reason. So a chimpanzee or another great ape might ask, instead, “what makes apes (including humans) distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom?”

There are obviously a few things that human beings can do that animals can’t, but any attempt to label a thought process unique to humans is going to be an attempt to socially construct a concept that has no basis in material reality. Humans can do things because their thinking abilities may work better: they communicate and share information extensively, and while animals are less prolific in their pedagogy, it would be unfair to say they don’t learn or teach each other at all. The ability to communicate through writing or pictures is probably the best example of a human-unique skill, and maybe the only near-universal (through time as well as space) human activity that no animal species besides Homo sapiens does. But we know that a list of species show the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, we know that a list of species have a sense of “object permanence” and understand that things continue to exist even when they can’t see them, we know that a list of species has the ability to understand speech, use sign language, solve puzzles, learn from others, maintain social groups and even solve math problems.

The 1960s-80s were a time when writers and thinkers were working hard to define human against nonhuman minds, or rather, the historic beginning and the end of human consciousness. Science Fiction literature and film mediated the conversation. The Planet of the Apes featured chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans that develop complex speech and societies while humans regressed to the wilderness, and 2001: A Space Odyssey opens with a philosophical scene, a pack of furry apes beating another to death; in that portrayal, the distinguishing moment that made man out of animals was the ability to murder for reasons other than self-defense or food. (We now recognize that many animal species do this.) That was a two-fronted discussion, as robots and thinking computers constituted another form of intelligence that could someday achieve human individuality; Blade Runner was heavy into the conversation as “replicants,” thinking robots that were illegal on Earth, went on a murdering spree against humans. The list would go on, but there is no doubt that the popularization of the theory of evolution sparked many of the questions.

And as consistent with the theory of evolution – where species arise gradually rather than suddenly – we find that animal thinking abilities lie on a continuum rather distinct contrasts of human versus nonhuman. Misconceptions about animal abilities are constantly being proven wrong, as more and more species are added to the lists of things we thought only humans did. Prarie dogs have their own languages, with different kinds of barks that mean different things and vocabularies that differ community to community. A recent study found that simple aquarium fish are more likely to thrive in groups than alone. Dolphins have been observed teaching their young how to use sponges to protect their snouts while they dig through the sea floor. When dogs playfully wrestle with each other, bigger individuals will handicap themselves to compensate for larger size or better health, have gestures to apologize for accidentally hurting another dog, and will ostracize individuals who bully or break those rules. Finally, Alex, a famous African gray parrot who died in 2007, could distinguish materials from each other, count and categorize them by substance or color and communicate that knowledge to his human trainer.

Some critics look at especially talented animals and argue that wishful thinking on the part of scientists leads to exaggeration of their senses or abilities. But from a conceptual standpoint – admitting it is not a “human” soul, but brain matter that produces intelligence, and human beings and animals share that – we should expect to find emotionality and human-like abilities in animals.

It seems that in the vast majority of cases, “wishful thinking” would downplay and reduce animal intelligence because of the inconvenience implied in thinking of them as conscious. We have been culturally conditioned through religion and by necessity to believe they do not suffer when they are slaughtered or abused or sacrificed on an altar, and we profit from using them in ways that would be difficult if we thought of them as sentient. Human societies have historically downplayed the intelligence and abilities even of other groups of humans they encountered and thought of as “uncivilized,” so have shown a track record of not seeing what is there when it benefits them. Furthermore, we know people judge each others’ intelligence by vocabulary, so the take-away impression of an animal who cannot talk would be that it is less intelligent though in reality it simply lacks the anatomy and wiring for speech.

But even this thought process may represent an anthropomorphized, and culturally limited, way of looking at the issue. Because as much as animals show typically “human” traits, we know that humans show animal traits too. We know that we use biological criteria in sexual selection and respond to pheremones, and we know that many human behaviors, such as walking and picking up language, are genetically-driven behaviors that children will develop even when you don’t teach them. And when we talk about simians or canines having social groups that resemble human families, wouldn’t it be more valid to say that human social groups resemble those of monkeys and wolves? Their species were, after all, around first.

While nonhuman animals do show “reasoning” skills, it might be more accurate to say that animals do not have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logic – reasoning that can remain confined within a set of agreed-upon rules. But that is simply an order of magnitude, not a distinct behavior that humans have and others don’t; when reasoning skills get advanced enough, and when we are given an education to boost, we learn how to use logic. We have no way of knowing if birds and cats philosophize, and inasmuch as animals do teach, we know they don’t teach things like chemistry and literature. Many species may, however, may measure up better against prehistoric humans than we normally care to admit.

December 29, 2009

How Life Transforms the Landscape: Evolution on a Global Scale

Filed under: science — ononehand @ 11:25 pm
Tags: ,

Most of us are familiar with the concepts that drive evolution and adaptability – that species with traits or features that allow them to thrive do thrive, populating the landscape, while species with traits that are not as well-adapted remain rare or go extinct. That’s why almost all the organisms we see in the wild are tough and well-adapted evolutionary “winners,” and while species come and go, life itself is nearly impossible to kill off.

But equally importantly, life has a tendency to bring other life with it; a successful new species creates a food source and shelter for other species to evolve or move in. Over billions of years, the net effect of this has been to expand the biosphere to cover the entire planet with increasing numbers of living things.

In the beginning of life on Earth, a few single-celled organisms stuck to the gentle shores of balmy, salty seas, while the rest of the planet was as barren and desolate as Mars or the Moon. The oceans filled with microorganisms first, aided by the mobility that sea currents provide but still few and far between. Early photosynthetic bacteria began to colonize into Stromatolites, forming grainy pillows of mud and sediment that dotted tropical coastal areas and are still visible today in some places, both in active growth and ancient fossils.

Left: Stromatolytes. Right: Red moss, a primitive, rootless plant that requires humid conditions.

When plants adapted ways of storing water or sucking it out of damp soil, significant numbers of species were able to move out of semi-submerged swamps and live on hills and plains. Early plants stayed within a few miles of the coast, places that are now known as marshes, cloud forests and coastal rainforest. But over time a few pioneers crept out onto continental interiors, and gradually evolved to larger sizes, for the first time making visual impact on the landscape on a global scale.

It was only recently in the timeline of life that an observer from space would see continents turn green with forests and grasslands. Deserts were quite barren until plants developed advanced strategies for storing water, allowing rocky, sandy places like the Mojave Desert to become littered with cactus and Joshua trees, dry grasses and woody shrubs with massive underground root systems. The establishment of consistent greenery, even if not as lush as a forest, allowed herbivores to move in, followed by predatory species, fungi, bacteria and other scavengers.

If you look at the kinds of plants that exist in Earth’s most difficult environments, you find that they are dominated by angiosperms – blooming plants – which emerged during the time of the dinosaurs and are recent introductions to Earth’s biosphere. It is hard to imagine ferns and cycads – Earth’s early plants with weak root systems and a strong preference for humid climates – growing comfortably in the desert or the arctic. Grass, a type of angiosperm and very recent development in the plant kingdom, was absent until about the time that dinosaurs went extinct, and now dominates semi-arid and arid areas. Before 65 million years ago, landscapes now covered in grass would be filled, instead, with caked dirt and only occasional greenery.

Grass changed the environment not only by introducing a food source for animals, but by taming it with extensive root systems. Grass has a dramatic, Earth-changing effect of controlling erosion, turning sand dunes into hills and muddy river banks into pastures. Dead grass decays and fertilizes sandy soil with water-absorbent organic material, which makes the land fertile. The systemic change of the landscape allows other drought-tolerant trees to begin growing, benefiting even some of the species that are less well-acclimated to the landscapes grass species take over.

Left: Grass taming a sandy area. Right: Grass dominating a semi-arid climate

Other angiosperms formed symbiotic relationships with bacteria in their roots to turn Nitrogen in the air into usable fertilizer. This is known to help other surrounding plants thrive, and has been used by farmers to benefit crops. The concept of crop rotation takes advantage of one species’ assistance of another, using nitrogen-fixing plants like alfalfa or clover to enrich soil for grass crops like wheat or corn.

A recent study has shown that blooming plants also humidified entire regions to make continental rainforests possible. Angiosperms, with advanced root and circulatory systems, are so good at finding water and pumping it into themselves that evaporation from their leaves humidified the air and generated new rains. Those rains invited millions of species to move in. Ferns have about a fifth of the leaf veins that blooming plants like ficus trees and avocados have, so weren’t able to humidify the air in the same way. But when ferns adapted the ability to grow in shady places beneath trees or cling to rainforest tree trunks themselves, they benefited greatly from the expanding biosphere, and developed their own ways to contribute to it. Again, it was a new evolutionary development that allowed places like the Amazon Rainforest to cover half a continent with green.

Clouds form over the Amazon Rainforest. Water evaporates from tree leaves, facilitating
cloud formation, at a faster rate than even the warm ocean does.

Even what we see as “primitive” kinds of species continue to evolve. Mosses don’t have roots or the ability to store water, but by developing the ability to survive freezing, they were able to begin growing on mountain tops and arctic tundra between rocks and logs, provided the area is moist with melting snow. Moss is known to be a pioneer species itself since it does not need soil, but produces soil when it dies and decays, allowing other plants to grow.

The way a species can make room for other species to thrive – as well as our understanding of it – is increasingly complex. Also increasing is the hostility of environments that diverse ecosystems cover with life. There is life beneath the ice in Antarctic, in abandoned nuclear reactors, and covering undersea volcanic vents. Animal species have long been learning to thrive in human environments, turning urban parks and sewers into thriving ecosystems.

If we see human beings as part of this system, greenhouses and irrigated farms are examples of one life form improving things for another. When there’s snow on the ground outside, the potted plants in my bedroom are certainly glad to have their human-built, adapted environment. Sure, ecology leaves room for the idea that one species can royally screw up an ecosystem for many others – even driving itself to extinction by overpopulating itself or overtaxing its food source – and doesn’t suggest that every species’ impact on the environment is “good.” (Evolution doesn’t see things in terms of “good” or “bad,” just working and not working.)

But humans are part of the principle nonetheless; we bring water to deserts and pass through tunnels blasted through solid rock. If we are able to seed Earth’s life on artificial space stations, the moon, or even other planets, isn’t this, too, an example of Earthly life facilitating its own expansion and filling inhospitable areas?

Expansion and adaptation will continue with or without human influence. It is easy to predict that evolutionary trends that have led to today’s green planet will only continue into the future. If a complex plant evolved to grow in ice or snow, it would turn huge tracts of arctic land into shrubland. As more desert species evolve, a landscape that gets only five inches of rain a year doesn’t seem so dry. Maybe the brown areas on the Earth we see in satellite images will be filled with shades of green in 50 million years.

Perhaps scientists will someday be able to use this concept to determine how long life has existed on a planet as humans begin to explore space. A planet that seems hospitable but only has life forms growing in specific areas is new, and a planet utterly covered in organisms has been experiencing the processes of life for billions and billions of years. Either way, it is obvious that this planet is experiencing somewhat of an unlimited expansion of its own, and that the natural world has its own way of unconsciously creating and organizing itself towards growth.

November 15, 2009

Cancer is contagious — wha!?

Filed under: science — ononehand @ 3:14 am

The first time any of us witnessed a cancer patient – a bald-headed peer in our elementary school, an aunt or grandmother with an appointment for a mastectomy, or a grandpa who got a dark, funny-looking mole removed – a reassuring adult explained that cancer isn’t contagious like other sicknesses. Cancer is our body’s own growth turned against us, sparked by a precise series of genetic mutations that debilitate a cell’s self-regulation but fail to kill it. It escapes immune detection because it is our body’s own cell; a cancer cell transfered to a new body would be recognized as foreign and pulverized by vigilant white blood cells.

Ther’s also the problem of getting an intact cancer cell into another person’s healthy tissue in the first place. Viruses spread because they are are extremely small packages of genetic material that can float through the air or wait on dry surfaces, hardy because they were never really “living” from the start. Bacteria are contagious because they can grow outside the body, can wait on skin, thrive in saliva or feces, and can often survive drying and re hydration by turning themselves into hardy spores. But a cancer cell is, first and foremost, a dependent tissue cell from a multicellular organism, which needs to be inside an organism to survive. It would have to be carefully detached alive, kept moist and immediately implanted directly into the deep tissue of another organism to recover and begin growing. When cancer spreads through a single person’s body in a malignancy, it does so by traveling through her or his own nourishing blood or lymphatic channels, never emerging outsisde the body.

There are a few kinds of cancers caused by a virus, including cervical cancers, genital cancers (usually caused by the Human papillomavirus) and Kaposi’s Sarcoma, found in people with advanced HIV infections and the elderly. Clusters of cancer cases have sprung up in rare anomalies where a virus is thought to have been the cause. Many common viruses lead to increased cancer risks – for example mononucleosis, caused by the Epstein-Barr virus which virtually everyone gets, is linked to an increased risk of developing leukemia. But in all these cases it is the virus that is contagious, not the cancer itself.

But there are two kinds of cancer that are actually contagious in and of themselves, spreading as living cancer cells from one organism to another. One is responsible for landing the Tasmanian devil on the endangered species list and threatens to wipe out that species.

Tasmanian facial tumor disease, image from the Public Library of Science

Tasmanian devils have the unfortunate habit of biting each other on the face while feeding and mating, often drawing blood. That allows living cancer cells of devil facial tumor disease to be implanted directly into the facial tissue of another Tasmanian devil. The tumors are fast-growing and kill the animal by overwhelming its face and preventing it from eating, leading to starvation. The disease has already affected between 20 and 50 percent of the Tasmanian devil population and has mutated into several different strains. But upon a genetic analysis of one of those tumor cells, you would find neither a fungus nor bacteria, but rapidly-growing Tasmanian devil cells from another individual.

The other kind of contagious cancer is the Canine transmissible venereal tumor, affecting dogs, foxes and coyotes. It spreads by sexual intercourse and affects the genitals and occasionally the face. It is estimated to have originated from a couple hundred to a couple thousand years ago, meaning that the original host’s own cells long outlived it; its cells continue to survive, as a pathogen, in other canines to this day.

Transmissible cancers break the rules of cancer by spreading from individual to individual, but are also unique among contagious diseases because they originate in an animal among its own cells. It would be as if a bump on your skin, part of your body, grew into a disease that started planting itself in other people and killing them. Anyone who got infected with your cancer would contain all of your your mutated DNA in their tumors – they’d essentially be dying of you, as a parasitic disease.

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