Monthly Archives: August 2007

The Futility of Emergence

Prerequisites:  Belief in Belief, Fake Explanations, Fake Causality, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

The failures of phlogiston and vitalism are historical hindsight. Dare I step out on a limb, and name some current theory which I deem analogously flawed?

I name emergence or emergent phenomena – usually defined as the study of systems whose high-level behaviors arise or "emerge" from the interaction of many low-level elements.  (Wikipedia:  "The way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions".)  Taken literally, that description fits every phenomenon in our universe above the level of individual quarks, which is part of the problem.  Imagine pointing to a market crash and saying "It’s not a quark!"  Does that feel like an explanation?  No?  Then neither should saying "It’s an emergent phenomenon!"

It’s the noun "emergence" that I protest, rather than the verb "emerges from".  There’s nothing wrong with saying "X emerges from Y", where Y is some specific, detailed model with internal moving parts.  "Arises from" is another legitimate phrase that means exactly the same thing:  Gravity arises from the curvature of spacetime, according to the specific mathematical model of General Relativity. Chemistry arises from interactions between atoms, according to the specific model of quantum electrodynamics.

Now suppose I should say that gravity is explained by "arisence" or that chemistry is an "arising phenomenon", and claim that as my explanation.

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Bias as Objectification

One reason to avoid insincerity is fear of being caught out.  But why is it bad to be caught out?  If you say something and it is later revealed that you said it only to gain some advantage, why would you care?  The obvious answer is that being known to be insincere will reduce your ability to enter into beneficial relationships with others in the future.  But clearly some people find being caught out to be very unpleasant in itself, beyond the reputational effect.  The reason, I think, is that being caught out is in some sense dehumanizing.  A guy who is caught out spinning cheesy pickup lines in a bar ceases to be regarded as an individual human being and just gets put in a box labeled "slimy bar guy," and it is humiliating to be thought of as someone whose essence can be captured with one uncomplimentary three-word label.

I think something similar lies behind the psychological impulse that some people have to overcome bias, and I certainly think this is so for me.  Somehow the idea that my beliefs or claims or arguments can be airily dismissed as the product of this or that self-interested bias damages my self-image far more than does simply being shown to be wrong.  I’m willing to go to pretty long lengths so that people can’t dismiss me in this way (or at least can’t do so in a way that I find substantive enough to be upsetting), and the best way to do this is to actually be as free of bias as possible.  Hopefully I’ve now reached the point that I seek OB as a virtue in its own right as well, but this is a big part of my motivation today and was a huge part of it in my formative years.

Does anyone else feel like this was also their motivation for seeking to OB?  Can anyone see any way in which this motivation introduces a bias into the project of OB?  I can’t think of any, except maybe that it tends to make you excessively worried about biases that other people are likely to pick up on and less worried than you should be about other ones.  Are there more?

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Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Imagine looking at your hand, and knowing nothing of cells, nothing of biochemistry, nothing of DNA. You’ve learned some anatomy from dissection, so you know your hand contains muscles; but you don’t know why muscles move instead of lying there like clay. Your hand is just… stuff… and for some reason it moves under your direction. Is this not magic?

"The animal body does not act as a thermodynamic engine … consciousness teaches every individual that they are, to some extent, subject to the direction of his will. It appears therefore that animated creatures have the power of immediately applying to certain moving particles of matter within their bodies, forces by which the motions of these particles are directed to produce derived mechanical effects… The influence of animal or vegetable life on matter is infinitely beyond the range of any scientific inquiry hitherto entered on. Its power of directing the motions of moving particles, in the demonstrated daily miracle of our human free-will, and in the growth of generation after generation of plants from a single seed, are infinitely different from any possible result of the fortuitous concurrence of atoms… Modern biologists were coming once more to the acceptance of something and that was a vital principle."
        — Lord Kelvin

This was the theory of vitalism; that the mysterious difference between living matter and non-living matter was explained by an elan vital or vis vitalis.  Elan vital infused living matter and caused it to move as consciously directed. Elan vital participated in chemical transformations which no mere non-living particles could undergo – Wöhler’s later synthesis of urea, a component of urine, was a major blow to the vitalistic theory because it showed that mere chemistry could duplicate a product of biology.

Calling "elan vital" an explanation, even a fake explanation like phlogiston, is probably giving it too much credit.  It functioned primarily as a curiosity-stopper.  You said "Why?" and the answer was "Elan vital!"

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Bias Against Torture

In many situations it would be better to impose a punishment of torture than imprisonment.  The fact that the U.S. justice system rejects torture as a punishment is the result of an anti-torture bias.

Torture has two benefits over imprisonment.  It’s cheaper for the state to impose and it doesn’t prevent the criminal from engaging in useful labors (such as parenting and working at a job) for long periods of time.   To determine who should be tortured as opposed to imprisoned we need to consider the benefits to society of imprisonment. 

Prison serves three purposes: deterrence, retribution and incapacitation.  Fear of prison deters many would-be criminals from committing crimes.  Fear of torture, however, could do likewise.  Imprisoning criminals can satisfy victims’ desires for vengeance and so make victims feel better.  Torturing criminals could, however, also satisfy victims’ desires for retribution.  Finally, prison prevents imprisoned criminals from attacking people who are not in prison.  The primary disadvantage of torture is that it doesn’t result in the incapacitation of criminals and so leaves them free to strike again.

Many convicted criminals, however, don’t pose a risk to society.  Men convicted of securities fraud, for example, are frequently barred from the stock market and so their freedom won’t endanger society.  Because of its far lower cost, the U.S. should torture rather than imprison criminals who don’t need to be removed from society.

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to torture criminals.  But both prison and torture impose costs on criminals.  Why is one type of cost crueler than the other?  If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of torture or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

In the U.S. many prisoners face a significant chance of being raped by a fellow inmate.  This high chance doesn’t seem to bother many people, and is often the subject of jokes.  Yet our society considers it barbaric for a criminal justice system to deliberately torture criminals in ways that may well impose less physical and emotional costs than rape does.  I find these conflicting moral views about torture and imprisonment to be irrational.

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Semantic Stopsigns

And the child asked:

Q:  Where did this rock come from?
A:  I chipped it off the big boulder, at the center of the village.
Q:  Where did the boulder come from?
A:  It probably rolled off the huge mountain that towers over our village.
Q:  Where did the mountain come from?
A:  The same place as all stone: it is the bones of Ymir, the primordial giant.
Q:  Where did the primordial giant, Ymir, come from?
A:  From the great abyss, Ginnungagap.
Q:  Where did the great abyss, Ginnungagap, come from?
A:  Never ask that question.

Consider the seeming paradox of the First Cause.  Science has traced events back to the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen?  It’s all well and good to say that the zero of time begins at the Big Bang – that there is nothing before the Big Bang in the ordinary flow of minutes and hours.  But saying this presumes our physical law, which itself appears highly structured; it calls out for explanation.  Where did the physical laws come from?  You could say that we’re all a computer simulation, but then the computer simulation is running on some other world’s laws of physics – where did those laws of physics come from?

At this point, some people say, "God!"

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Exccess Trust in Experts

From a recent New York Times article:

In a study published in 2005 in The Journal of Legal Studies, 147 subjects were asked to assume either the role of an adviser or of someone depending on advice. The researchers set up two experimental conditions. In both, there was a conflict of interest: the advisers stood to gain financially if the clients followed their biased advice.

In the first condition, in which the advisers did not disclose their conflict of interest, they knowingly gave misleading advice. In the experiment, the clients lost money because they followed the advisers’ suggestions.

In the second condition, the advisers disclosed their conflict of interest: they conceded they would benefit if the clients heeded the advice. But coming clean didn’t have the expected result. Although the clients, now aware that their advisers were biased, were more skeptical about taking the advice, "they didn’t discount it enough," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the study, which was conducted at the university.

And the advisers, still determined to make more money, exaggerated their claims. "The advisers ended up making even more money than in the first condition, which is exactly the opposite of what you would hope for or expect," he said.

Excess trust in expert advisors seems to be a relatively robust finding, well worth further study.  My guess is that the explanation will be deep and important.  Hat tip to Tyler Cowen. 

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Fake Causality

Followup toFake Explanations, Guessing the Teacher’s Password

Phlogiston was the 18 century’s answer to the Elemental Fire of the Greek alchemists.  Ignite wood, and let it burn.  What is the orangey-bright "fire" stuff?  Why does the wood transform into ash?  To both questions, the 18th-century chemists answered, "phlogiston".

…and that was it, you see, that was their answer:  "Phlogiston."

Phlogiston escaped from burning substances as visible fire.  As the phlogiston escaped, the burning substances lost phlogiston and so became ash, the "true material".  Flames in enclosed containers went out because the air became saturated with phlogiston, and so could not hold any more.  Charcoal left little residue upon burning because it was nearly pure phlogiston.

Of course, one didn’t use phlogiston theory to predict the outcome of a chemical transformation.  You looked at the result first, then you used phlogiston theory to explain it.  It’s not that phlogiston theorists predicted a flame would extinguish in a closed container; rather they lit a flame in a container, watched it go out, and then said, "The air must have become saturated with phlogiston."  You couldn’t even use phlogiston theory to say what you ought not to see; it could explain everything.

This was an earlier age of science.  For a long time, no one realized there was a problem.  Fake explanations don’t feel fake.  That’s what makes them dangerous.

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Is Hybrid Vigor IQ Warm And Fuzzy?

The July 2007 Psychological Review has Michael Mingroni reviewing an interesting theory he published in Intelligence in 2004, that IQ has increased mainly because of more interracial and cross-cultural mating:

IQ test scores have risen steadily across the industrialized world ever since such tests were first widely administered, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. Although the effect was documented more than 2 decades ago, there is currently no generally agreed-on explanation for it. The author argues that the phenomenon heterosis represents the most likely cause. Heterosis, often referred to as hybrid vigor, is a genetic effect that results from matings between members of genetically distinct subpopulations, such as has been occurring in human populations through the breakup of small, relatively isolated communities owing to urbanization and greater population mobility.

Regardless of whether Mingroni’s theory is true, I find it striking that it seems less politically correct than it could be. 

The first response you often hear to genetic explanations of IQ, or even the very idea of IQ, is that such ideas encourage racists, such as Nazis.  But Mingroni’s hybrid vigor theory seems tailor-made to oppose racist and other xenophobic mating policies; instead of killing off "lower" races or preventing interracial mating, Mingroni’s theory suggests one wants to encourage diverse mating and preserve other races as sources of genetic diversity. 

The currently political correct environmental explanations of IQ, in contrast, are quite compatible with racist and other xenophobic mating policies.  That is, one can nearly as easily oppose contact and mating with outsiders for fear of contamination from outsiders’ cultural and other environmental influences, as from outsiders’ genes.  Such arguments were offered in the recent immigration debate, for example.  So why are environmental IQ theories so praised for opposing racism, relative to hybrid vigor?   

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Science as Attire

Smallerstorm_2Prerequisites:  Fake Explanations, Belief As Attire

The preview for the X-Men movie has a voice-over saying:  “In every human being… there is the genetic code… for mutation.”  Apparently you can acquire all sorts of neat abilities by mutation.  The mutant Storm, for example, has the ability to throw lightning bolts. 

I beg you, dear reader, to consider the biological machinery necessary to generate electricity; the biological adaptations necessary to avoid being harmed by electricity; and the cognitive circuitry required for finely tuned control of lightning bolts.  If we actually observed any organism acquiring these abilities in one generation, as the result of mutation, it would outright falsify the neo-Darwinian model of natural selection.  It would be worse than finding rabbit fossils in the pre-Cambrian.  If evolutionary theory could actually stretch to cover Storm, it would be able to explain anything, and we all know what that would imply.

The X-Men comics use terms like “evolution”, “mutation”, and “genetic code”, purely to place themselves in what they conceive to be the literary genre of science.  The part that scares me is wondering how many people, especially in the media, understand science only as a literary genre.

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Moral Bias as Group Glue

Two papers out this month together tell a simple story:  we like us over them because we are biased to see our acts as more moral.   The August Psychological Science says we excuse unfair choices by ourselves or our group members, but not by those from other groups: 

 In one condition, subjects were required to distribute a resource (i.e., time and energy) to themselves and another person, and could do so either fairly (i.e., through a random allocation procedure) or unfairly (i.e., selecting the better option for themselves). They were then asked to evaluate the morality, or fairness, of their actions. In another condition, subjects viewed a confederate acting in the unfair manner, and subsequently evaluated the morality of this act. …

Individuals perceived their own transgressions to be less objectionable than the same transgression enacted by another person. Moreover, this hypocritical view extended to judgments of others … subjects viewed transgressions committed by in-group members to be as acceptable as their own.

The August Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that we like our group more than other groups mainly because we see our group as being more moral.   In contrast, thinking our group to be more competent or sociable didn’t much matter for our liking them: 

Study 1 participants reported that their in-group’s morality was more important [to positive group evaluation] than its competence or sociability. An unobtrusive factor analytic method also showed morality to be a more important explanation of positive in-group evaluation than competence or sociability.  Experimental manipulations of morality and competence (Study 4) and morality and sociability (Study 5) showed that only in-group morality affected aspects of the group-level self-concept related to positive evaluation (i.e., pride in, or distancing from, the in-group).

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