Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Great New Party Game and a Couple of Book Recommendations

Recently I was reading a terrific book called Monkey Girl, a well-researched and gripping account of the famous Dover, Pennsylvania evolution trial in which Lisa Kitzmiller, a local mother, and ten other citizens sued the city school board for trying to introduce "intelligent design," a supposed "alternative" to the well-established theory of evolution, into the classrooms where their children sat and learned.    Judge John E. Jones III,  a conservative Christian judge appointed by George W. Bush, delivered a decisive ruling regarding intelligent design:  it is, he declared, a religious program and not science and has no place in a public classroom.  He also called the school board members "liars" and labeled their mischief "an act of breathtaking inanity," a phrase everyone ought to tuck into their argumentative toolkit.

Intelligent Design is simply renamed "scientific creationism" with a bit of pseudo-sciency biological misdirection called "irreducible complexity,"  the observation that complex processes and structures in organisms like the immune response or the molecular "machinery" of a single cell are constructed of interlocking parts and steps:  remove any one of them and the system ceases to function.   Thus, it is argued, the whole thing, cell or system, must have been created--ZAP!--at once by a foreseeing intelligence of some sort and could not have evolved step-by-step through natural selection.

This is just plain wrong, as many scientists have shown, but lots of people have fallen for it.  Intelligent design fails completely because it ignores the well-documented way evolution builds scaffolding underlying complexity step-by-step out of parts that are initially useful but later may be discarded as new functions and structures  develop.  The result looks like a magic trick (How did that big rock get all the way up there! Jeepers! Must've been aliens!) if you don't do the hard work of reconstructing the shape of the scaffold.  If you pull out the keystone of an arched bridge, the whole structure will indeed collapse, but that tells you nothing about the support mound that held the whole arch up as it was constructed stone-by-stone.

Here's a new party game you can play alone or with friends--no real limit on number of players other than space and time considerations.  I call it "Life Scaffold," but you can call it anything you want.  The only equipment is brains and an understanding of historian Daniel Boorstin's 1963 prediction that in the future "celebrities will be known for their well-knownness."   So if you know that Kim Kardashian has a colossal booty (I had known of her before I ever saw her picture or knew anything about her body), you already know more than enough to play.   The only firm rules are "don't resort to the supernatural or non-existent technologies" and "don't quote the Bible except for rhetorical and literary flourishes," by which I mean don't be an idiot.

Quick game sample,  starting at the highest skill level.   What event or sequence or confluence of events  would it take to slam Brad Pitt (or Bono, or Lady Gaga, or Bill Gates, or George Lucas--you get to pick) and Angelina Jolie into homelessness?  Homelessness is having to sleep outside under the stars or bridges (No shelters, no shacks, no shanties, no caves, no friends or relatives' couches, no dog condos, and no protection from the elements besides blankets and ponchos)

You and the other players have use your background knowledge of the world to find a plausible way this could happen.  In this case the scaffolding holding up Brad and Angelina as they construct the cathedral of their lives and careers is about as sturdy and intricately interlocking as it gets.  And like the building of a cell's machinery, much of its historical path is invisible.  But unlike a cell's molecular machinery or an arch, knocking out a single part might not do the trick.   Too many variables and societal helpers come out of the woodwork to help:  friends, family, fans, and the near invincible power of Boorstin's "well-known-ness" dictum.  Where do you start?  How to bring them down?

Your first impulse is to play the scandal cards allotted to you--mentally tallied--because the game has no physical props.  Scandal cards cost you a lot of points, especially the big easy Child Abuse Card.  And remember, you're trying make them homeless (the freedom!), not incarcerated felons.  Or you can simply list  the cards not permitted at all before the game starts and make sure everyone agrees.  Also, you can invent future events but you're not allowed any "Time Machine" cards to change the past (I haven't worked out all the details because I'm too lazy and I'm already giving you a wonderful free  idea to go over the back fence with, so you can hammer out the rules).

If you spend even a couple of minutes puzzling over the above situation,  you should see that without scandal cards that it's going to be super difficult,  especially in a world where celebrities' lives actually improve the more beastly they behave. In that case,  you might want to start at beginner level.  A few weeks ago we heard about Erin Moran, who was Joanie in Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi, and her current incarnation as evicted trailer-park trash.  You don't have to strain much to picture the ways she and her bar-fly friends spent the 65,000 dollars she got not long ago by suing the producers of her old shows.

If you and your friends are brave enough, or you're alone some night, you can play a version of the game I call "Avoiding the FAED."  FAED is my own acronym for the Fundamental Attribution Error Demon.  Very quickly, the Fundamental Attribution Error happens when people watch other people screw up, wreck their lives and create poison chaos for others with seemingly obvious and doltish mistakes that you could see coming for miles.  What idiots.  However, when you screw up and find yourself flat on your back in the muck, it wasn't your fault, it was society, the environment, the system, the noise and distraction--the brutes!   Yes, you say, mistakes were made . . . but not by me.

That's the title of an excellent book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson which brilliantly explains the psychology of cognitive dissonance, the profound physical and mental discomfort felt when people try to hold mutually incompatible ideas in their heads simultaneously.  One of the ways they escape CD is invoking the FAE Demon, who is very useful at shifting blame and allowing you to always be right and never make a wrong decision.

Okay, let's wrap this up so you can try out the new party game with your friends or play the solitary version.  This involves fearless and meticulous (perhaps impossible in practice but not in principle) mental reconstruction of the scaffolding you and others constructed step-by-step that got you to your current peak or pit.  Unlike the proponents of intelligent design, you are not allowed to insert Providence as a explanation for successful life construction or blame a demon for slip-shod craftsmanship.   Enjoy!

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