Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ingroup nurturing and socialism

I was listening to the podcast, Point of Inquiry, as they were interviewing George Lakoff. I really recommend this episode, as it discuss on the neural basis of rationality, and how you can't separate your "feelings" from your thought processes, mainly due to the fact that you don't control most of you thought processes, as they occur subconsciously.
The main point that I wanted to discuss, because it blew my mind off, it is how different our thinking about a specific aspect can be if we are part of that aspect. The great example they used is the conservative US movement. If you asked them about their opinion on socialism, you would find a large negative view of it. If then you ask about their opinion on the military, then you would find an almost absolutely positive view of it.
This is interesting, because from a practical point of view, the military is the perfect socialist organization. All the decisions come from the top, the individuals have no liberty to decide their roles and the distribution of resources is decided by a central organization. All hallmarks of socialism.
So how you reconcile this opposite views? Well, there is the fact that probably a large amount of conservatives have not thought about the military from this point of view (I had for sure not). But there is also the point that we can have different beliefs in different important social/political ideas and they may have different levels of priorities. One of the defining characteristics of the conservative movement is the ingroup nurturing (things like post church soup stands, boy scouting, and the military). Therefore you may have these two different ideas and they will have to resolve into a final "conscious" opinion. Depending on the strongest one, then you will have two completely different opinions on one or the other.
And you never know how you came about that opinion. At least not consciously.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Different ways to say the same thing?

Recently I was listening to the great biotech podcast Future in Biotech episode 77 when they were interviewing the great Susan Lindquist and her postdoc Daniel Jarosz about a paper just published. I will not go through the paper here (go to the link, great interview), but the gist is that they discovered another layer of subtle control on the expression of proteins by a cell, that can be tweaked depending on the environmental conditions. As I was listening to the interview, I was trying to construct a mental model of all the control mechanisms that a cell has, and it simply overwhelmed my imagination.
At that point, I suddenly remembered a post by PZ Myers in the very popular Pharyngula where he starts the article with one of the best phrases ever: "Most of you don't understand evolution". Then he proceeded to destroy the general bad assumptions that most of us (non evolutionary biologists) have about evolution. I am not talking about creationism stuff, just about the fact that the basic idea that we have about evolution is structurally wrong. PZ concentrated in the fact that most people think that evolution is for individual beings and simple genes while it is actually about population of beings and networks of genes, but I am sure that there are a bunch of other similar misconceptions that the general scientific public has (and let's not even mention the general non-scientific public as seen here).
Then I came back to something that I had been discussing recently in another forum (It's Science, you wouldn't understand ) where I discussed about how much intervention the general (non scientific) public should have in deciding the agenda for Scientific institutions. I don't think I did a great job explaining my position (yes to explain the general principles and yes to deciding the general directions, no to every other intervention), but I think both the FiB episode and PZ's article point towards the same direction.

People tend to confuse the map with the territory.

It is not because you have a basic understanding of a scientific theory that you actually know about it. There is a reason why there are so few postdocs in every specific topic, as it takes a long time to acquire the expertise to avoid confusing the map/metaphor with the territory/reality.  And just as you can't jump into a map and arrive to a destination, you can't use you basic understanding of a scientific issue to take decisions about that issue. You have to walk the pathway to arrive to the territory.

Science is hard. But it is so good.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Skepticism and Ethics

Recently, the new blog Skepticism and ethics asked for submissions. You can see the winner here . Clearly well deserved. I did submit something, and clearly it was inferior to the winner. But as this is my blog, then I can put it  here. Well, it's call "Learning to think", not "I know how to think already".
Oh, and goodness, I am a pompous writer...I have to work on that too.

Ethics and skepticism

Why to be a skeptic? Is it a matter of being right? Of debunking preternatural claims? Of laughing at poor reasoning and swear that we will never do the same?
And while we are at it, how do we apply our skepticism? Are we armchair skeptics that blast against the perceived overall decrease in rationality of our society, but do nothing to affect it? Or should we stridently shout our convictions to our interlocutor faces, telling them how subhuman they are because they are not able to reach similar conclusion to us when faced to similar facts? Maybe meeting with friends in a pub to discuss the skeptical topic du jour around drinks is the right approach to it.
I don’t know. And I don’t drink alcohol, which makes these questions harder, as I can’t disolve them with spirits.
It is not only that I don’t know. I doubt my own capacity to answer these questions. Which feels ridiculous, because they are part of the philosophical basis of a position that I have identified as mine. Skepticism. But feeling ridiculous do not make the doubts disappear. Maybe I should fall into philosophical skepticism, and believe that knowledge is not possible. But I’ve always felt that position is lazy, so as a good biased human I solve this position by ignoring it because I don’t like it.
So how do I answer these questions? Well, here is where Ethics come into play. If you look up  what the Oxford English Dictionary says about ethics, you will find this definition:

“Moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”

That seems exactly what I am looking for! Well, then let me elucidate this as I tend to do in this day and age. With a quick internet search. Sadly, either due to my poor searching technique, or to the lack of baseline material, I don’t find anything besides the post for the essay contest, and the excellent (but preliminary) post by Daniel Loxton in Skeptiblog. So no easy way out for me.
I know what to do. Steal and borrow from philosophers. Not money, they don’t seem to have much. Moral theories they do have. “All” I have to do is just check the main ethic theories and see if there is one that fits better with skepticism than the others. Should be simple.
So I start with Virtue Ethics. The four classic virtues seem to apply very well to the ideal skeptic. Temperance to make sure that we don’t rush into a conclusion and that we take a look at the evidence around the topic. Prudence to use our practical decisions in favor of our skeptical goals. Fortitude to defend our positions even though they may not be popular or easily chewed up into “soundbites”. And obviously Justice, to be able to give a position the appropriate value that it has due to the evidence, even if we don’t like it.
But Virtue ethics is very much centered in “me”. In my qualities, that I may or may not have, that I may improve or not. In my mind Skepticism has also the interaction component, with other people (skeptics or not), and other social entities, which doesn’t fit with Virtue Ethics.

I follow with Utilitarianism. I saw that it is the complete opposite to Virtue ethics in regard of the interaction part. As Utilitarianim looks at the consequences of our actions, it directly deals with the interactions we have with the other people. And is that aspect that is both the strength and the weakness of this theory when applied to Skepticism. To obtain the best results for a particular situation, the skeptic may have to bend some of his principles. Why to explain the situation completely, when a nice quote will do much more to turn believers into skeptics? Lots of explanations with the risk/benefit ratio laid down in front of the people may bring either boredom or panic. This may affect the adherence of the “masses” to our positions as skeptics. So lets NOT do it.
ut this goes against the prototypical skeptic, that is characterized for his/her resistance to be pulled into a particular direction only because it gives better results (the “herding cats” meme, etc).
So I have the Deontological ethics to go. And how fast I go through it by realizing that Skepticism can never be separated of its rationalist roots. And these roots would be intoxicated by an ethical approach that only cares about the characteristic of our action, but not the result. Because rationalism should always win! Not because there is a rule (which deontologists love) that says that, but because by definition if you were rational, you should have chosen the path that would have given you the best outcome.
At this time then, I am confused. I am in the dark, and I can’t find the keys to solve the problem.
So I do as I should do, and look where the light is. And my keys are named David Couzens Hoy. So I find him. These keys are tortuous, and quite hard to understand and at least half of it is way over my head. But the most popular parts are not.
He defines ethics as obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable. These obligations are due to the ethical resistance of what he calls the “powerless ones” to our ability to exert our power over them. This definition intrinsically has the relationship between the skeptics and the “believers” in it.
And it has our attitude and responsibility also integrated. The “believers” are powerless against the forces of ignorance/irrationality. That is why they ended up believing them. We support them, because their lack of power makes them unable to resist to these forces, making it necessary for us, that have some power against these forces, to use it in favor of the powerless. Complicated much. Yeah, I agree with you. Let me put it from another point of view.
The obligations can’t be forced on them or us, as this would place the obligations outside of the realm of ethics(ought to be like this), and it would put it on the realm of law(it is like this). An example of it is how we don’t discuss the ethics of raping women or children,  because it’s integrated in the social structure of society, but we discuss the ethics of the use of placebo, because there is no law structured prohibiting it.  And because the ”believers” have no power, they can’t enforce them on us.
But even Hoy does not solve the largest problem of all. How to do it? I would say that, as any other complex problem in nature, the response is multi-factorial. We will have to realize that our basic neurology has some concepts of “virtues” intrinsic to it, and that we will have to temper their influence by internalizing that the outcomes we consider important will be affected if we don’t. All of this under the framework of rules established by either us or society in general, which may or not be optimal for the satisfaction of our endpoints or our idealized representations of ourselves.
Bashing myths and misconceptions is fun, but at the end of the day, we have to remember our obligation to the powerless that are in the grasp of these fallacies. Because they will not remind us, as they can’t get out without help.
I have met the helpers, and he is us

Thursday, May 12, 2011

To the victor belong the spoils

Recently I was reading an old article, The Croonian Lecture 1991 about Genostasis and the Limits to Evolution , and I realized that the fact that evolutionary biology is a historical science (in the general sense of the word) colors how some of the reasoning about it. In this article, A. D Bradshaw remind us that even though the current natural world is the result of the different evolutionary processes, we have to remember that it only represents the species of organisms that survived, and that the majority of the species in the history of the planet are actually dead.
One of the main logical errors that people commit when considering the theory of evolution is to ascribe a teleological function to it. That is, that the evolutionary process is a "force", that guides "purposefully"  the organisms to be better adapted to their environment. This goes against the concept of genostasis, and against most of what we know about evolution per se. It is very hard to conceive that the directionality of the evolutionary results is due to the fact that the results that were not compatible with the environment simply died off. They disappeared.  Therefore the one remaining, the one that we are able to see, seems to have received the effect of the "force" of evolution. To this species belong the spoils.
How does the concept of genostasis illustrates this fallacy's errors? Well, A.D. Bradshaw shows it very nicely, with several examples taken from real environments. Some of the environments described have very tough conditions for the organisms (extreme salinity, copper toxicity, etc), and even though the organisms around have had all the time in the world (literally) to adapt to those conditions, they haven't. Because evolution is not purposefully trying to push the organism to adapt to that particular condition. If the organism has a mutation that gives it a differential reproductive advantage over others when it is placed in the tough environment, well, then it will survive. But if it doesn't (and most of the times we could say they don't), then simply the organism will die off, or just never go into that environment, even thought the resources in that environment could help the organism to thrive.
 If there was a teleological purpose behind evolution, we would expect that it would be pushing the organisms to evolve towards a better optimization with the environment. What happens in real life is completely different. In a real environment, the organisms may or may not adapt to a change in the condition. It all depends on preexisting variations, or in newly formed mutations that give place to new variation. But as A. D. Bradshaw shows, in a lot of organisms, this variation never happens, either because it is too hard to evolve the characteristic, because it never had enough time to evolve it, or because the variability for that characteristic implies a worsening in other life sustaining features, therefore making it harmful (at least in the short run) to evolve in that direction. And when they are not able to
So while we do have to marvel to all the "power" of evolution in our planet, we  also  have to remember that evolution always hides its failures under a mantle of dirt.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Einstellung effect or why are you doing that in autopilot?

I am again reading through the excellent The Edge series of answers to What important tool should you have in your cognitive toolkit? . This is one of the most important series or articles/post that I've ever read online or offline. Not only because they found legions of really smart people, which gives you, predictably, lots of good answers, but because you can contrast what is important to each one of them, and how one tool interacts with the other.
At this time, I just finished reading Evgeny Morozov post, about the Einstellung effect. To summarize, this is the realization that as pattern recognizing machines, we always have the tendency to try to solve a problem with the tools that have worked on previous seemingly similar problems, without stopping to think if the problems are actually the same.
After reading his contribution, I realized that this is actually a meta-cognitive tool, that you have to use on top of the other ones. And it is very important because it has to counteract so many of our natural tendencies. It has to fight against cognitive dissonance (we used this solution before for something that looks just like this, so if I use another one I will look stupid, therefore I have to use the old solution), against confirmation bias (yeah, this old solution worked great for that problem...what? it didn't? Nah, that must be wrong) and so many other cognitive biases.
And I also realized that it is very hard to use, unless you do it on a systematic way, as it will always add extra time to your thinking, and it may not give you any benefit (you may actually be right in selecting the old answer). Therefore in our never ending battle for efficiency, we may be confronted to the hard decision to either use this tool and expend more resources than expected, or ignore it to our own peril.
Then just after this last paragraph I realized the most important realization brought to me by Mr. Morozov post, which is that due to the bound nature of our rationality, we may need to ignore in some cases some cognitive tools. Which ones and when? Well, that's why we have Science and Philosophy. And that is why these two disciplines are always liked to have other people criticize you, because their bounded rationality may have used the tool that you missed, and discovered the hole in your reasoning.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hidden assumptions

Earlier in the week, I stumbled upon this article, Unearthing deeply rooted plant 'myths' . It is about Dr. Henry Oakeley, the garden fellow for the London's Royal College of Physicians, and his view about herbal medicine.
He posits that most plants are actually trying to harm us, or at least are neutral, going against the usual view that "herbals" are more "natural" and therefore better for us.
While reading the article, I realized that I had never thought about this before. I have evaluated the evidence for specific herbal remedies (and found most of them wanting, from the scientific standpoint), but I never thought about it in a global way. I even had the hidden assumption that we have to prove that they are not useful/that they are beneficial as my baseline, instead of having a probability based assumption.
Let me explain that better.
When you have a large variation for a character(the place in the beneficial-harmful spectrum for hundreds of thousands plant species), and very tight constraints to fulfill (human biology) it is logical by probabilities that most of the variations will be either null or harmful (similar to the relationship between mutations and organisms). Therefore multiple generations of humans had to go to the trial and error process to find the ones that are useful. And these would have been very few, relatively speaking.
But then, why do we have this assumption that "herbals" are good for us? Human selection and availability bias, I would say. Whenever we find  a plant that benefits us in any way, we will select it and plant more of it around us. Therefore we see them more, and when we have to think about the relationship between plants and us, we will think about the ones that we plant ourselves, and give them predominance in our mental representation of how plants interact with us. Dr. Oakeley is able to escape this assumption, because he takes care of thousands of different varieties of plants, and not only for alimentary or health reasons. He is able to realize how infrequent are the ones that actually are useful to us.
This illustrates how even when you are trying to be rational about a topic, like I was when I  evaluated the claims of different herbal medications, you may have some non manifest assumptions that may color not only your perception, but how you interact with that aspect of the world. It makes even more important both the systematization of how you evaluate claims, but also your exposure to people that have very different backgrounds, to use them as a detection machine for your own hidden assumptions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


As Monty Python used to say: And now for something completely different...

I recently read a great post by Jade at

It made me think. And it made me write. Not very well, but what can we do. I wish I could have done honor to Jade's post. But I tried my best. And I really want to have this somewhere.

So here is my reply to her post:

mmm. It seems that your experience with your mother has clearly colored your perception about parenthood, Jade. I am very sorry about that.
I think that the fact that you wrote this post shows that you have thought about this, and you are baring your feelings to us. 
So I will return the favor. Nothing personal, as I don't know you. But also everything personal, because I do have children. And I love them so hard that it hurts.
Here I go.
The thing DON'T  have to be perfect. You WILL want to throw your kids through the window. Sometimes.
Because, well, they are little selfish monsters. Sometimes.
And because you (and I) are big selfish monsters. Sometimes. 
But most of the times, they and you will be...humans. Resilient and weak, sentimental and rational, stupid and genial. In a world...Complex. 
The excuse of being afraid that you will affect their lives because you do x or y and that will affect them for the rest of their lives is exactly that. An excuse. And a very self important one.
If you extended that reasoning, you would have to live your life in a cocoon, because you would be to scared to offend someone, or butt-in someones way. You could affect their whole life!
But in real life you do that. You are not perfect. You cut in line in the supermarket. You honk in a hospital zone. You vote without having read about the candidate. You are petty to your coworkers. You curse the delivery guy because your pizza is cold. You ignore the guy asking for money in the corner of the street. And society goes by.  
Your kids will do (mostly) fine, because even if you are their parent, in this day and age, you are NOT their whole world. They will interact with other members of your family, with the daycare teacher and the other kids there. With the weird cartoons on TV. And if they don't do fine, most probably you were not the total cause for that.
Can you be a complete monster and scar your kids for life? Of course you can. But most probably you won't. You will just be a fallible, out of style, mumbling and bumbling parent, that will never reach the idealistic goals that you thought you were going to attain before you had your kids. But also you will never be the terrible monster that your worse nightmares seemed to imply you were. Because yes, you are a special unique snowflake. But you are most probably very similar to all of us. Human. And not really that important in the grand scheme of things.
Most of the times, when people that don't have a biological reason not to have kids tell me that they don't want kids, I realize that the issue is NOT with the (theoretical) kids. The problem is with the people themselves. With either their self image or the image that they have about the world. They want to be perfect. Or to have a perfect world. And they are scared as hell that having a kid is going to screw that up. So they make all these nice rationalizing argument not to have kids. And you know what? All their arguments are completely and absolutely right.
There is no rational reason to have kids anymore, unless you live in an agricultural society. Children take your resources and time, they don't give back any income to the family, they don't let you pursue your dreams, etc. Let somebody else have kids.
But you know what?
There is no rational reason to be a scientist. It is much easier to have a bunch of other professions with better return on investment for your time. Let somebody else be a scientist.
There is no rational reason to start an artistic carreer. Statistically speaking, the chances of being successfull are very low. Let somebody else be an artist.
There is no rational reason to be, as an individual, altruistic. Statistically speaking, as long as there are other around you that are altruistic, you can be as selfish as you want, and you will do better than them. Let somebody else be altruistic.
But we do all these completely irrational things, because we are irrational. Thankfully. Because human rationality is bounded, and there is no way we can predict all the good/bad things that will develop from our decisions. So we just jump. And when we don't jump...well we give ourselves excuses (the water was TOO cold today!, I'll ask that girl out another day, Kids are really expensive, etc). I am not condoning making completely illogical decisions, but there are some decisions that you can't be completely rational about them, because you don't have the information to do so. So most of the time the statistically/heuristically answer is the correct one. Obviously an artist always will say it better than me so I would recommend you (maybe you have heard it already) to listen to Jonathan Coulton. . Much better than anything I could say.

"I don't judge at all because I know that the parent is stressed out. They are doing the best they can in that moment. I know they don't realize how impactful their words are on that little mind, how absorbent children are to painful words and actions.  How lasting it will be. Oh sure, the child will forget- this time. Maybe the next time. But at some point it starts to change their self-perception and feelings of self-worth. They get the message that they are a burden and that love is based on conditions. I'll love you as long as you do as I say, behave, be quiet, stop crying, etc.
No parent can escape having a few episodes of this kind, I am sure. No one is perfect. And many people think that parents are too soft or too easy on kids today."
Therefore everybody in the world is a screwup and we all are the worse possible human beings they can be. You don't judge the parents? Of course you do. Read your own words. And one of the problems is that YOU don't want to be judged. Because you will do all those things. Like all of us.
"How lasting it will be" you said. Yes, as you know perfectly well, the world is not made of fluffy colored pillows and rainbows. We get hit, but still we persevere. We are great, and terrible.  We are Shakespeare and Gandhi. We are Watson and Crick.  We are Hitler and Stalin. We are sons and parents. We hurt each other, but we also give strength to each other.
"But I am glad I won't ever have to be in that position. I'll never have to punish, spank, yell at, or threaten a child. This is a big relief to me. I don't envy the job of parents". I have no way to know what is in you head. But just by reading this it gives me the feeling that your relief is that you don't have to put yourself in the risk of being flawed. Not that you are afraid of doing those things, but that you are afraid of what YOU will think of yourself when you do them. You prefer not to confront that side of you, so you can be perfect in that aspect. So you don't have to be like your mother.
But that is also part of growing as a human being. Like it or not. Of course you can learn most of these things by other situations in life. But being a parent makes you realize WHO you are more than anything else in life, or at least it did that to me. Because you can't hide your warts. Because the other side(your kids) has no social skills to avoid telling you that, well...the emperor has no clothes. And there you stand naked. In front of yourself. Without a way to escape from the evidence of your imperfection. You won't have the "relief" of avoiding the realization that you are a horribly and terribly flawed human. Just like everybody else. Oh, yes, you can see your defects in other aspects of life. But only with kids you have to pay the consequences of them, and learn to live with them.
When I finished reading your post, I had the feeling that this sentence "What is it like to want to be a parent? I guess that is emotion I am missing- I don't even know what that feels like." is complete BS. Obviously I have my biased glasses on. But the emotion that I felt you transmitted in this post is not ignorance. The emotion is longing.
For the road not taken.
Thanks for writing this post. 

After I wrote this post I started thinking about why Jade's provoked such reaction in me. 
From the rational standpoint, I remember that some studies have shown that parents tend to overestimate the pleasure/benefits of having kids while downplaying the side effects/problems. This makes sense to me, as it is pure cognitive dissonance to have kids. We don't realize that as much as we want to be hoity-toity rational beings, we are at the root of our existence, biological entities with instincts of reproduction. As we don't want to be reduced to only that, we make up reasonings for why to have kids, to resolve the dissonance. But the error in the reasoning is that we can be the biologically determined machines, controlled by our instincts, but this in no way impedes that we have other layers to us (partner, worker, hobbyist, etc), that makes us more complex. It's like saying that having a motor that pushes a boat forward implies that the boat can't turn in circles. 

Loved to see myself being triggered like that. And loved the self examination afterwards. Although it's hard. The advantage is that I have an even stronger sense of my love for my daughters.
Which is helpful when they break something at home!