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!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Examining the man behind the curtain

I was reading earlier on "The man behind the curtain" , where Tony Rothman describes how the lay person understanding of physics ascribes a higher level of clarity to them than what they really have, and that the scientist have been hiding this, equating it to the way Dorothy saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time.
But I wonder...Is this description truthful? It seems to me that some of the most famous science popularizers of physics have always described this state of lack of knowledge as the most intriguing part of physics (and of science in general). Feynman was the greatest at stating this, in multiple ways, like  "Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get "down the drain," into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that." (Source of Quote: Wikipedia). Even more modern ones like Brian Greene don't hide this. He even has a section called "Puzzles and Progress" in his book, The Fabric of Cosmos, and I would say that he is one of the most "positive" physicists in regards to the possibilities of science. 
So, where does this perception comes from? I would use Mr. Rothman's quote from Eugene Wigner's book, "The Unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the Natural Sciences"  to find an answer. Well, the thing with physics is that it works ( . To an unreasonable level. The fine structure constant has a precision of 0.37 parts per billion. We have now quantum clocks that won't get out of synchronization of more than 1 second in one billion years. And I could go on and on with examples of superbly precise levels of knowledge.
And for most of the general public, the "science" part that they see is what will affect them, not what it explains of nature. So they see the great advances, the absurdly precise measurements, and they do not care about the little details. I do agree with Mr. Rothman that we should probably increase the public understanding about the real nature of science, which is to constantly doubt what you think is certain, and to constantly look where you haven't before. This would help us a lot when parts of science that have high probability of certitude but not the complete details of reality (like climate change for example) are being attacked due to "lack of 100% certitude.

Another point where I disagree with the article is in his tirade against the freshman/pre graduate level text books, and their lack of precision. Yes, they overgeneralize, and smooth out the rough points that are present in the edge of physics. But you know what? At the edge of physics (or any other science) there SHOULD be rough edges. That's why it's called research. Because we don't know what we are going to find!. But just as you don't teach the ballet beginners of all the issues that they may have on their joints/muscles on the first class (, and lots of other ones), you don't expect that freshmen in any area of knowledge will see the doubts that arise in the harshest of the intellectual environments. It's not the way that you teach people about anything.

There is also the issue of the conflating the present with the future. Yes, we may not know now how/what it is exactly happening, but it's a logic error to think that this will always be the case, that we will always remain completely ignorant.

And following this point, what he seems to be approaching is the issue of the possibility of knowledge, and how detailed can we get before we can't go further down, and if the fact that we can't have complete knowledge of anything without using unproven priors nullify the possibility of knowledge. As Feynman said "We can't define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers… one saying to the other: "you don't know what you are talking about!". The second one says: "what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?" (Source of Quote: Wikipedia) That is more for philosopher's to discuss than for physicists, although when the field becomes so advanced, it would probably benefit the physicist to dabble in philosophy, to clarify exactly are the epistemological issues of what they are doing. I don't think that the fact that we don't understand a problem completely means that we don't know anything about the problem. That ignores the fact that nature seems to have magnitude scale differences.  Even if  you don't know what happens in the lower scale, you can  KNOW what is happening in the upper scale.
He finishes saying that we should not confuse description with understanding. I would say that he shouldn't confuse incompleteness of knowledge with lack of knowledge.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


A couple of days ago, I was listening to the podcast "Philosophy Talk", about procrastination. As probably anybody that has ever blogged in their life knows, it is so easy to leave a post for "later on", when you have more time to "concentrate" on the blog post, when you can "really write" what you want.
Most of the time, this means..., well, no post.
Some of the concepts in the podcast that tickled my fancy were "short term mood repair" and "unfairness to your future self". Let me explain a little bit.
The first one, short term mood repair, has to do with one of the possible reasons of why we procrastinate. And it has to do with our natural tendency to favor things that will make us feel better, in the short run. It may be by eating, having sex, sleeping, etc, but the important thing is that we give undue importance to these short term advantages, even when you are completely conscious that you will pay the consequences afterwards (obesity, divorce, being late).
 This is very important, as it is an underlying concept not only of procrastination, but of multiple other concepts. For example, you could define maturity simply as a transition from caring only for the short term mood repair to realizing the importance of long term goals.
Also this could be one of the main factors affecting our current economy troubles, as most large publicly traded corporations need to have their quarterly earnings showing improvement, even at the cost of long term investments (unless you have other checks and balances, which are very weak in this day and age.
The second concept, unfairness to your future self, has to do with the morality (or lack of it) of procrastination. Most people consider procrastination as an issue dealing with the question of free will and/or how the different decision modules of our brain coordinate a final decision.
But rarely I've heard the morality of procrastination being discussed. I don't mean that people don't consider this factor, but I have the impression (not based in data at this time) that most people intrinsically consider procrastination as a "bad" moral action, without thinking "why" is it bad. Here is where the concept of unfairness to your future self comes in. Because by not doing something you actually ARE doing something, that is you are affect the time distribution of your own self in the future, restricting its freedom, just because of your procrastination. And it's even worse, as you are doing it on purpose!. This argument really made my day, as I had never hear it before.
I do think this argument is not completely airtight, because the you in the future is completely dependent on your actual self, and you can't avoid going to the future, so even if the side effect of procrastinating is in the future, taking the decision in the present is appropriate. Negating this would imply that you don't have much rights over your own self, and things like private property, the right of suicide/abortion/healthcare decisions should not be left to us,
Anyways, I have to go do something else. Or play this nice video game here....

Monday, April 11, 2011

Coevolution and "species"

Reading this article ( ), about how a group of sweet potato whiteflies increased their fitness after being infected by a bacteria (Rickettsia, to be specific), made me think about how we define organisms and "species".
In today's evolutionary biology there is a large discussion of how to define "species"(Jerry Coyne wrote a great blogpost about that here But most people don't really have this fine appreciation of the difficulties in using the concept. In most places, the equivalence of species to one of the "platonic" (in quotes, because I don't think people use it consciously) types is what people use. So a dog is a dog is a dog. People don't realize that there is a large degree of variation, and lots of dogs are more similar to a wolf than other, the same way that a lot of wolves are more similar to a dog than other, depending on the population.
And things like this symbiosis between a bacteria and a whitefly makes it even more confusing, as you could always argue that the whiteflies that have the bacteria are a completely different species, to the point that they replaced almost all the ones without a bacteria. But then you would have to say that just by symbiosis you changed your species! This obviously would make even more interesting (conceptually at least) the study of the microbiome (the ecosystem of microorganisms) of the human gut, to see if you have subpopulations that have a significant different microbiome to the others, to the point that they have different functions. How interesting it would be if we could manipulate this to give ourselves extra abilities (Yes, sir, take an enema of this microbiome, and your cholesterol level will drop by half).
I think that as the thinking species in our world, we have to start becoming more open to use the symbiosis that we have available to modify our health and our intrinsic characteristics as the "human" species.

3 moral quandaries to think about

Reading this article "Expertise in Moral Reasoning? Order Effects on Moral Judgment in Professional Philosophers and Non-Philosophers", by Eric Schwitzgebel, I had to review some of the most interesting thinking points in morality. Even more because I've realized that everytime I think about them I reach different conclusions.

Moral Luck: You can be declared morally responsible for something that is not completely under your control...or not? Typical example is the drunk trailer truck driver. If he arrives home without an accident, do you blame him as much as you would if he, completely by chance, runs over a little girl instead? If you do, then you would have to have a very severe application of moral guilt, for a lot of actions that all of us take almost every day. But if you don't, then you are saying that the action that he did by volition (drinking) is not determining the morality endpoint, but the action that he did by chance (running over the little girl) is. Therefore you could have morality decisions depending of random situations.

Double effect: Is it worse to harm a person as means to save others versus harming that person as a side effect of you saving them? This to me it is a specific case of the moral luck dilemma, because if you know in advance that the side effect is going to happen, then you knowingly are harming the patient. On the other hand, if you don't know, then we are going into the moral luck question again.

Action and Omission: Is it morally worse to cause somebody to drown, or to not save that person (taking into account that saving the person wouldn't affect you in a significant fashion) if you are able to?

One of the problems that I see with answering these questions (and I suppose it is one of the main ones with any kind of philosophical questioning) is that it has a large number of suppositions integrated in the questions. And this makes it difficult to think and discuss with others, as they may have different assumptions about the same premises. It has to do with how do you view determinism versus free will, and the responsibility of the individual over the societal ones.

Again, an interesting read.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How to divide your pirate map.

Say you have 5 pirate descendants(you are the pirate King after all). You want them to remain united, at least 3 or more.
You left them a map of your treasure. How do you make sure that only one or two can't find it?
Make a circle, with the treasure at some point of the circumference (for example the southernmost). Mark 5 points on that circle. Give the direction of a point to each of your descendants. Now by geometry they HAVE to have 3 or more points to find where is the treasure (as 2 points can't really reconstruct a circle, you need at least 3!)

Trying new approach

Well, clearly blogging once a year is not the best.
I'm going to try something different. Put one idea/concept that I thought it was great/interesting and discuss it a little bit.
This will help me also to remember it and have it for reference later.