Friday, March 16, 2018

Dying for the group - a theory of extreme self-sacrifice

I'm on Behavioral and Brain Sciences' mailing list of potential commentators on its forthcoming articles, and now pass on the abstract of a forthcoming article by Harvey Whitehouse, on what might be the motivation behind suicide terrorist attacks:
Whether upheld as heroic or reviled as terrorism, throughout history people have been willing to lay down their lives for the sake of their groups. Why? Previous theories of extreme self-sacrifice have highlighted a range of seemingly disparate factors such as collective identity, outgroup hostility, and kin psychology. This paper attempts to integrate many of these factors into a single overarching theory based on several decades of collaborative research with a range of special populations, from tribes in Papua New Guinea to Libyan insurgents, and from Muslim fundamentalists in Indonesia to Brazilian football hooligans. These studies suggest that extreme self-sacrifice is motivated by 'identity fusion', a visceral sense of oneness with the group resulting from intense collective experiences (e.g. painful rituals or the horrors of frontline combat) or from perceptions of shared biology. In ancient foraging societies, fusion would have enabled warlike bands to stand united despite strong temptations to scatter and flee. The fusion mechanism has often been exploited in cultural rituals, not only by tribal societies but also in specialized cells embedded in armies, cults, and terrorist organizations. With the rise of social complexity and the spread of states and empires, fusion has also been extended to much larger groups, including doctrinal religions, ethnicities, and ideological movements. Explaining extreme self-sacrifice is not only a scientific priority but also a practical challenge as we seek a collective response to suicide terrorism and other extreme expressions of outgroup hostility that continue to bedevil humanity today.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

We project our own spatial bias onto others.

Graziano's group has done an experiment suggesting that our spatial bias in processing objects in the right visual field better than the left (or vice versa, in some people) is projected onto others when inferring their perceptions in a theory of mind task. This suggests that common underlying mechanisms are used when we process our own visual space and imagine someone else's processing of their space

Most people have an intrinsic spatial bias—many are better at processing objects to the left, whereas some are biased to the right. Here, we found that this subtle bias in one’s own awareness is mirrored in one’s ability to process what is likely to be in other people’s minds. If you are biased toward processing your own right side of space, then you may be faster at recognizing when someone else processes an object to his or her right side. One possible interpretation is that we process the space around us, and understand how others process the space around them, using at least partially shared mechanisms.
Many people show a left-right bias in visual processing. We measured spatial bias in neurotypical participants using a variant of the line bisection task. In the same participants, we measured performance in a social cognition task. This theory-of-mind task measured whether each participant had a processing-speed bias toward the right of, or left of, a cartoon agent about which the participant was thinking. Crucially, the cartoon was rotated such that what was left and right with respect to the cartoon was up and down with respect to the participant. Thus, a person’s own left-right bias could not align directly onto left and right with respect to the cartoon head. Performance on the two tasks was significantly correlated. People who had a natural bias toward processing their own left side of space were quicker to process how the cartoon might think about objects to the left side of its face, and likewise for a rightward bias. One possible interpretation of these results is that the act of processing one’s own personal space shares some of the same underlying mechanisms as the social cognitive act of reconstructing someone else’s processing of their space.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Slow Thought Manifesto

I am on Aeon’s mailing list to receive three essays from its archive each day, three more items to scan in a daily stream of emails from aggregators that together present several hundred ideas or articles as candidates for more thorough attention. It’s really too much - a skimming of the surface of things, like a water fly zig-zagging across a pond, preoccupying my limited attentional assets with brief and superficial chunks at the expense of lingering and thinking a bit more deeply about something. As my day progresses this process can accelerate to a debilitating pace.

So…. I woke up this morning recalling an article that I swished past yesterday with only a glance. It apparently had made a subliminal impression, and joined the unresolved issues visited during my nightly sleep.

It is a piece from Vincenzo Di Nicola, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, writing on the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, part of a broader cultural meme called the Slow Movement, that moves on to champion the slowness in human relations that is required to support a sense of belonging. I suggest you read the article, and here pass on his summary seven proclamations:
1. Slow Thought is marked by peripatetic Socratic walks - face to face dialogue.
2. Slow Thought creates its own time and place - Refusing the time constraints of 30-second media soundbites...not sequential in time, but structured by the slow logic of thought.
3. Slow Thought has no other object than itself - allowing us to live more fully in an atemporal present, freed from the burden of an imperfect past or the futile promise of a redemptive future.
4. Slow Thought is porous - non-categorical, improvisational
5. Slow Thought is playful - creating its own time, rules and sense of order, a discontinuity in our lives.
6. Slow Thought is a counter-method, rather than a method, for thinking as it relaxes, releases and liberates thought from its constraints and the trauma of tradition
7. Slow Thought is deliberate - not rushing thinking.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On social media lies spread faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth.

Here is the link to the widely reported open access Science Magazine article by Vosoughi et al. showing that social media propagate false news more rapidly and deeply than true news.  (They also discuss their findings in a NYTimes 'Grey Matter' piece.) The Science summary and abstract:

Lies spread faster than the truth
There is worldwide concern over false news and the possibility that it can influence political, economic, and social well-being. To understand how false news spreads, Vosoughi et al. used a data set of rumor cascades on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. About 126,000 rumors were spread by ∼3 million people. False news reached more people than the truth; the top 1% of false news cascades diffused to between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely diffused to more than 1000 people. Falsehood also diffused faster than the truth. The degree of novelty and the emotional reactions of recipients may be responsible for the differences observed.
We investigated the differential diffusion of all of the verified true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The data comprise ~126,000 stories tweeted by ~3 million people more than 4.5 million times. We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications. Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information. We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information. Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust. Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.
From the NYTimes piece:
Surprisingly, Twitter users who spread false stories had, on average, significantly fewer followers, followed significantly fewer people, were significantly less active on Twitter, were verified as genuine by Twitter significantly less often and had been on Twitter for significantly less time than were Twitter users who spread true stories. Falsehood diffused farther and faster despite these seeming shortcomings.
And despite concerns about the role of web robots in spreading false stories, we found that human behavior contributed more to the differential spread of truth and falsity than bots did. Using established bot-detection algorithms, we found that bots accelerated the spread of true stories at approximately the same rate as they accelerated the spread of false stories, implying that false stories spread more than true ones as a result of human activity.
Why would that be? One explanation is novelty. Perhaps the novelty of false stories attracts human attention and encourages sharing, conveying status on sharers who seem more “in the know.”
Our analysis seemed to bear out this hypothesis. Using accepted computerized methods for inferring emotional content from word use, we found that false stories inspired replies on Twitter expressing greater surprise than did true stories. The truth, on the other hand, inspired more joy and trust. Such emotions may shed light on what inspires people to share false stories.
The social media advertising market creates incentives for the spread of false stories because their wider diffusion makes them profitable. If platforms were to demote accounts or posts that disseminated false stories, using algorithms to weed out falsehoods, the financial incentives would presumably be reduced. The tricky question, of course, would be: Who gets to decide what is true and false?
Some notion of truth is central to the proper functioning of nearly every realm of human endeavor. If we allow the world to be consumed by falsity, we are inviting catastrophe.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Critical comment on Pinker's "Enlightenment Now"

In this final post on Pinker’s new book, “Enlightenment Now” I want to note several reviews that offer reservations about the book (and offer a few responses), passing over reviews that are largely laudatory (such as Winterer’s in the Washington Post and Bakewell's in the NYTimes Book review.

From David Brooks in an Op-Ed piece:
Pinker doesn’t spend much time on the decline of social trust, the breakdown of family life, the polarization of national life, the spread of tribal mentalities, the rise of narcissism, the decline of social capital, the rising alienation from institutions or the decline of citizenship and neighborliness….today’s situation reminds us of the weakness of the sort of Cartesian rationalism Pinker champions and represents. Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered….Pinker’s rationalism is not the total cure.
From Douthat's Op-Ed NYTimes piece:
I’m most interested in the bright line that Pinker draws between the empirical spirit of science and the unreasoning obscurantism he suggests otherwise prevails.
I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.
That’s because those worlds’ inhabitants were a self-selected population who had either experienced something transformative or suffered something debilitating and been told by the official consensus, “We have no answers for you yet.” And so they ventured out in search of answers in an intensely experimental spirit — trying to see what people or prayers or situations recreated the initial religious experience, trying to discern what remedy or diet or program might actually make them feel, not just alive, but well.
From Szalai in “Books of The Times”:
There’s a noble kernel to Pinker’s project. He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.
...has little patience for individual tragedy; it’s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”
But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang froid — that makes “Enlightenment Now” such a profoundly maddening book.
Part of the problem is that Pinker succumbs to a version of the magical thinking he otherwise rails against. For all his intermittent disclaimers about how past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, he keeps slipping into messianic anticipation. “Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces or mystical arcs of justice,” he writes, “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.”
A common thread in the reservations stated by reviewers is that reason, and some sort of social order based on rational humanism, is not enough, is not the cure. It doesn’t seem to offer the rich emotional social bondings of religion and tribalism that make groups of people cohere.  This is more a tactical and strategic point than a challenge to rationality and a scientific world view, which can frequently provide a solid reason that irrationality seems to be so useful,  why the effectiveness of apparently irrational cults noted by Douthat can have a very rational basis. Almost any belief shared as evidence of tribal loyalty energizes our evolved empathetic social cognition. There is a rational basis for believing the world is flat if that belief is required as evidence of tribal loyalty. Or, the rationalist might explain the social cohesion whose loss is lamented by Brooks  as an evolved and sometimes useful mass placebo effect, with religion or tribal loyalty promoting unity because people believe it will.  Social cohesion, the "Us" that is the collective form of our individual "I's" is no less an illusion than our experience of having an individual "I."  Our rational cognitive neuroscientific minds inform us that both illusions are useful ones, made possible by the evolved circuitry of distinctive areas of our social brains.

The reviewers seem not to note what I think is Pinker’s effective response in Chapter 23 of his book:
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Pinker on humanism and human flourishing.

These clips from the last chapter (chapter 23) of Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" conclude my passing on of some of the ideas from the book. Please read through to his final summary, which is very powerful. In a subsequent post, I want to comment on positive and critical reviews the book has received.
Though humanism is the moral code that people will converge upon when they are rational, culturally diverse, and need to get along, it is by no means a vapid or saccharine lowest common denominator. The idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing clashes with two perennially seductive alternatives. The first is theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife. The second is romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation. Though romantic heroism was first articulated in the 19th century, it may be found in a family of newly influential movements, including authoritarian populism, neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and the alt-right. Many intellectuals who don’t sign on to these alternatives to humanism nonetheless believe they capture a vital truth about our psychology: that people have a need for theistic, spiritual, heroic, or tribal beliefs. Humanism may not be wrong, they say, but it goes against human nature. No society based on humanistic principles can long endure, let alone a global order based on them.
….let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well. It’s particularly wrongheaded for the reactionary right to use frantic warnings about an Islamist “war” against the West (with a death toll in the hundreds) as a reason to return to an international order in which the West repeatedly fought wars against itself (with death tolls in the tens of millions). After 1945 the world’s leaders said, “Well, let’s not do that again,” and began to downplay nationalism in favor of universal human rights, international laws, and transnational organizations. The result, as we saw in chapter 11, has been seventy years of peace and prosperity in Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
As for the lamentation among editorialists that the Enlightenment is a “brief interlude,” that epitaph is likelier to mark the resting place of neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and related backlashes of the early 21st century. The European elections and self-destructive flailing of the Trump administration in 2017 suggest that the world may have reached Peak Populism, and as we saw in chapter 20, the movement is on a demographic road to nowhere. Headlines notwithstanding, the numbers show that democracy (chapter 14) and liberal values (chapter 15) are riding a long-term escalator that is unlikely to go into reverse overnight. The advantages of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation cannot be denied for long in a world in which the flow of people and ideas is unstoppable.
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.
Still, the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness. I have made my own best case for progress and the ideals that made it possible, and have dropped hints on how journalists, intellectuals, and other thoughtful people (including the readers of this book) might avoid contributing to the widespread heedlessness of the gifts of the Enlightenment.
Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.
Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? The case for Enlightenment Now is not just a matter of debunking fallacies or disseminating data. It may be cast as a stirring narrative, and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.
We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.
Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.
We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.
And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Pinker on reason, and our presumed post-truth era

The last section, part III, of Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" is titled Reason, Science, and Humanism. Here I pass on a few clips from Chapter 21, "Reason," in which our presumed "post-truth era" is discussed:
In a revolutionary analysis of reason in the public sphere, the legal scholar Dan Kahan has argued that certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. People affirm or deny these beliefs to express not what they know but who they are. We all identify with particular tribes or subcultures, each of which embraces a creed on what makes for a good life and how society should run its affairs. These creeds tend to vary along two dimensions. One contrasts a right-wing comfort with natural hierarchy with a left-wing preference for forced egalitarianism…
Kahan notes that people’s tendency to treat their beliefs as oaths of allegiance rather than disinterested appraisals is, in one sense, rational. To express the wrong opinion on a politicized issue can make one an oddball at best—someone who “doesn’t get it”—and a traitor at worst…Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality).
Intellectual and political polarization feed each other. It’s harder to be a conservative intellectual when American conservative politics has become steadily more know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. On the other side, the capture of the left by identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors creates an opening for loudmouths who brag of “telling it like it is.” A challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.
Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself. As I mentioned, many commentators are confused about it. The discovery of cognitive and emotional biases does not mean that “humans are irrational” and so there’s no point in trying to make our deliberations more rational. If humans were incapable of rationality, we could never have discovered the ways in which they were irrational, because we would have no benchmark of rationality against which to assess human judgment, and no way to carry out the assessment. Humans may be vulnerable to bias and error, but clearly not all of us all the time, or no one would ever be entitled to say that humans are vulnerable to bias and error. The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.
For the same reason, editorialists should retire the new cliché that we are in a “post-truth era” unless they can keep up a tone of scathing irony. The term is corrosive, because it implies that we should resign ourselves to propaganda and lies and just fight back with more of our own. We are not in a post-truth era. Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong. The same decade that has seen the rise of pants-on-fire Trump and his reality-challenged followers has also seen the rise of a new ethic of fact-checking.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Future of Progress - return to the Middle Ages, or continuing upward curve?

Continuing the series of posts on Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now", I want to pass on clips from the last chapter (Chapter 20) of part II of the book, dealing with progress, in which he considers the future of progress:
The deeper question is whether the rise of populist movements, whatever damage they do in the short term, represents the shape of things to come—whether, as a recent Boston Globe editorial lamented/gloated, “The Enlightenment had a good run.” Do the events around 2016 really imply that the world is headed back to the Middle Ages? As with climate change skeptics who claim to be vindicated by a nippy morning, it’s easy to overinterpret recent events.
...supporters of authoritarian populism are the losers not so much of economic competition as cultural competition. Voters who are male, religious, less educated, and in the ethnic majority “feel that they have become strangers from the predominant values in their own country, left behind by progressive tides of cultural change that they do not share. . . . The silent revolution launched in the 1970s seems to have spawned a resentful counter-revolutionary backlash today.”
Pinker notes an article by the statistician Nate Silver:
… the article’s headline: “Education, Not Income, Predicted Who Would Vote for Trump.”….. A more interesting explanation is that education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to do, instills a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.
Among the exit poll questions that probed general attitudes, the most consistent predictor of Trump support was pessimism.
How will the tension play out between the liberal, cosmopolitan, enlightenment humanism that has been sweeping the world for decades and the regressive, authoritarian, tribal populism pushing back? The major long-term forces that have carried liberalism along—mobility, connectivity, education, urbanization—are not likely to go into reverse, and neither is the pressure for equality from women and ethnic minorities.
Populism is an old man’s movement. As figure 20-1 shows, support for all three of its recrudescences—Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties—falls off dramatically with year of birth…people carry their emancipative values with them as they age rather than sliding into illiberalism. And a recent analysis of 20th-century American voters by the political scientists Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman has shown that Americans do not consistently vote for more conservative presidents as they age. Their voting preferences are shaped by their cumulative experience of the popularity of presidents over their life spans, with a peak of influence in the 14–24-year-old window. The young voters who reject populism today are unlikely to embrace it tomorrow.
I believe that the media and intelligentsia were complicit in populists’ depiction of modern Western nations as so unjust and dysfunctional that nothing short of a radical lurch could improve them….Even moderate editorialists in mainstream newspapers commonly depict the country as a hellhole of racism, inequality, terrorism, social pathology, and failing institutions.
We don’t have a catchy name for a constructive agenda that reconciles long-term gains with short-term setbacks, historical currents with human agency. “Optimism” is not quite right, because a belief that things will always get better is no more rational than the belief that things will always get worse. Kelly offers “protopia,” the pro- from progress and process. Others have suggested “pessimistic hopefulness,” “opti-realism,” and “radical incrementalism.” My favorite comes from Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.”

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Pinker on progress

This post is my third installment of summarizing or passing on bits of Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now”. The previous installments dealt with Pinker’s description of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment and with the first chapter in Part II on progress, Chapter 4, “Progressophobia,” dealing with the distain for the idea of progress that pervades intellectual circles. This post continues with Chapters 5 through 19, which present data demonstrating process in all areas of human experience and flourishing. Chapter 5, “Life,” documents aspects of the amazing rise in human life expectancy…
…in the mid-18th century, life expectancy in Europe and the Americas was around 35, where it had been parked for the 225 previous years for which we have data. Starting in the 19th century it began to rise and is now 75-80 in western countries, 70 averaged over the world.
Chapter 6 is on health and the decline in death from diseases as science and medicine discovered their causes. Chapter 7 on sustenance give data on the decreases in famine and hunger made possible by the agricultural revolution. Chapter 8, on Wealth, notes:
…since the industrial revolution was in place in 1820 gross world product increased 100-fold, and 200-fold since 17th century start of the enlightenment. Application of science to improving material life (steam engine, electricity, etc.) By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. …. Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.
Chapter 9, on inequality, challenged several of my assumptions, noting the confusion of inequality with poverty:
...when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too. inequality itself is not morally objectionable, what is objectionable is poverty
…If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. In comparisons of well-being across countries, it pales in importance next to overall wealth. An increase in inequality is not necessarily bad: as societies escape from universal poverty, they are bound to become more unequal, and the uneven surge may be repeated when a society discovers new sources of wealth. Nor is a decrease in inequality always good: the most effective levelers of economic disparities are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions, and state collapse. For all that, the long-term trend in history since the Enlightenment is for everyone’s fortunes to rise. In addition to generating massive amounts of wealth, modern societies have devoted an increasing proportion of that wealth to benefiting the less well-off.
As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved, often because their members rise into the upper classes. The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.
From Chapter 10 “The Environment”:
Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks the means to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic, and humanistic environmentalism can work. As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species. As people get richer and better educated, they care more about the environment, figure out ways to protect it, and are better able to pay the costs. Many parts of the environment are rebounding, emboldening us to deal with the admittedly severe problems that remain.
First among them is the emission of greenhouse gases and the threat they pose of dangerous climate change. People sometimes ask me whether I think that humanity will rise to the challenge or whether we will sit back and let disaster unfold. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll rise to the challenge, but it’s vital to understand the nature of this optimism. The economist Paul Romer distinguishes between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. We cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology.
Chapter 11, on Peace, gives data on the decline in the number of major wars between nations.
In fact, war may be just another obstacle an enlightened species learns to overcome, like pestilence, hunger, and poverty. Though conquest may be tempting over the short term, it’s ultimately better to figure out how to get what you want without the costs of destructive conflict and the inherent hazards of living by the sword, namely that if you are a menace to others you have given them an incentive to destroy you first. Over the long run, a world in which all parties refrain from war is better for everyone. Inventions such as trade, democracy, economic development, peacekeeping forces, and international law and norms are tools that help build that world.
Chapter 12 on Safety discusses decreases in the risk of death from almost everything…homicides, crime, car accidents, being pedestrian, flying, etc.
Like other forms of progress, the ascent of safety was led by some heroes, but it was also advanced by a motley of actors who pushed in the same direction inch by inch: grassroots activists, paternalistic legislators, and an unsung cadre of inventors, engineers, policy wonks, and number-crunchers. Though we sometimes chafe at the false alarms and the nanny-state intrusions, we get to enjoy the blessings of technology without the threats to life and limb.
Chapter 12 on Terrorism notes that death rates from terrorism remain unchanged over the past 45 years, despite up and down blips, and that the number of death from terrorism is very small compared with homicides and vehicular and other accidents.
Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear.21 It happened to the anarchist movements at the turn of the20th century (after many bombings and assassinations), it happened to the Marxist and secessionist groups in the second half of the 20th century, and it will almost certainly happen to ISIS in the 21st. We may never drive the already low numbers of terrorist casualties to zero, but we can remember that terror about terrorism is a sign not of how dangerous our society has become, but of how safe.
Chapter 14 on Democracy has some interesting points:
Why has the tide of democratization repeatedly exceeded expectations? The various backslidings, reversals, and black holes for democracy have led to theories which posit onerous prerequisites and an agonizing ordeal of democratization. (This serves as a convenient pretext for dictators to insist that their countries are not ready for it, like the revolutionary leader in Woody Allen’s Bananas who upon taking power announces, “These people are peasants. They are too ignorant to vote.”) The awe is reinforced by a civics-class idealization of democracy in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preference.
By that standard, the number of democracies in the world is zero in the past, zero in the present, and almost certainly zero in the future. Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of their representatives.
….autocrats can learn to use elections to their advantage. The latest fashion in dictatorship has been called the competitive, electoral, kleptocratic, statist, or patronal authoritarian regime.22 (Putin’s Russia is the prototype.)
If neither voters nor elected leaders can be counted on to uphold the ideals of democracy, why should this form of government work so not-badly—the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, as Churchill famously put it? In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed.
The political scientist John Mueller broadens the idea from a binary Judgment Day to continuous day-to-day feedback. Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.”
I skip over Chapters 15, 16, and 17 on increases in equal rights, knowledge, and quality of life to a quote from Chapter 18 on happiness, in which Pinker gives data contradicting the common assumption that there is a loneliness epidemic :
Modern life.. has not crushed our minds and bodies, turned us into atomized machines suffering from toxic levels of emptiness and isolation, or set us drifting apart without human contact or emotion. How did this hysterical misconception arise? Partly it came out of the social critic’s standard formula for sowing panic: Here’s an anecdote, therefore it’s a trend, therefore it’s a crisis. But partly it came from genuine changes in how people interact. People see each other less in traditional venues like clubs, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, and dinner parties, and more in informal gatherings and via digital media. They confide in fewer distant cousins but in more co-workers. They are less likely to have a large number of friends but also less likely to want a large number of friends.51 But just because social life looks different today from the way it looked in the 1950s, it does not mean that humans, that quintessentially social species, have become any less social.
Chapter 19 deals with existential threats such as nuclear war, the imagined dangers of artificial intelligence, etc.
…risk assessments fall apart when they deal with highly improbable events in complex systems….The math is of little help in calibrating the risk, because the scattershot data along the tail of the distribution generally misbehave, deviating from a smooth curve and making estimation impossible. All we know is that very bad things can happen.
That takes us back to subjective readouts, which tend to be inflated by the Availability and Negativity biases and by the gravitas market (chapter 4). 8 Those who sow fear about a dreadful prophecy may be seen as serious and responsible, while those who are measured are seen as complacent and naïve. Despair springs eternal. At least since the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, seers have warned their contemporaries about an imminent doomsday. Forecasts of End Times.
In a subsequent post I will move on to Chapter 20 “The Future of Progress,” and then a final post on the third section of the book, on Reason, Science, and Humanism.

Monday, March 05, 2018


In this post I continue to pass on brief clips from Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" that I found most fascinating. The following is from Part II of the book (Progress) Chapter 4, "Progressophobia" Pinker discusses some of our most powerful cognitive biases, the availability heuristic and negativity:
Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class.
In History of the Idea of Progress, the sociologist Robert Nisbet agreed: “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”
The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world.
Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. How many people are victims of violence as a proportion of the number of people alive? How many are sick, how many starving, how many poor, how many oppressed, how many illiterate, how many unhappy? And are those numbers going up or down?
The incredulous reaction to Better Angels convinced me that it isn’t just the Availability heuristic that makes people fatalistic about progress. Nor can the media’s fondness for bad news be blamed entirely on a cynical chase for eyeballs and clicks. No, the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper. The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.” The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling?...
The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)
In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome: Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.
…the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.
Information about human progress, though absent from major news outlets and intellectual forums, is easy enough to find. The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder. (Rosling learned that not even swallowing a sword during a 2007 TED talk was enough to get the world’s attention.) The case has been made in beautifully written books, some by Nobel laureates, which flaunt the news in their titles—Progress, The Progress Paradox, Infinite Progress, The Infinite Resource……none was awarded with a major prize, but over the period in which they appeared, Pulitzers in nonfiction were given to four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer, two on racism, and one on extinction.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Two very different worlds to live in.

On the same day that I read yet another depressing article in the New York Times - Thomas Edsall on the increasing polarization and demonization in our society:
Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty. The building strength of partisan antipathy — “negative partisanship” — has radically altered politics. Anger has become the primary tool for motivating voters.
I get an email from the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center that feels like a reality warp to a different world, as they offer a “March 2018 Happiness Calendar” with daily homilies on various topics: mindfulness, kindness, gratitude, relaxation, sociality, resilience, etc.

If only we could salt the first of these realities with a bit of the second....

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" - a must read book

I recommend Pinker's new book to all MindBlog readers as an refreshing antidote to the drumbeat of popular press articles bemoaning our world's potential return to pre-enlightenment cultures where religious orthodoxy and tribal mentalities prevail. Pinker is a brilliant polymath, the depth of his analysis and the documentation he has has assembled is amazing.

Today I'm going to pass on a few chunks from my abstracting of Part I of the book, titled 'The Enlightenment.' Subsequent MindBlog posts will pass on bits of Part II (Progress) and Part III (Reason, Science, and Humanism).
Chapter 1 Dare to Understand
If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.
To the Enlightenment thinkers the escape from ignorance and superstition showed how mistaken our conventional wisdom could be, and how the methods of science—skepticism, fallibilism, open debate, and empirical testing—are a paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge. That knowledge includes an understanding of ourselves. The need for a “science of man” was a theme that tied together Enlightenment thinkers who disagreed about much else,..Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
Their belief that there was such a thing as universal human nature, and that it could be studied scientifically, made them precocious practitioners of sciences that would be named only centuries later.
The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage…They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.
Chapter 2 Entro, Evo, Info
Entropy, evolution, information. These concepts define the narrative of human progress: the tragedy we were born into, and our means for eking out a better existence. The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose.
Evolution left us with another burden: our cognitive, emotional, and moral faculties are adapted to individual survival and reproduction in an archaic environment, not to universal thriving in a modern one. To appreciate this burden, one doesn’t have to believe that we are cavemen out of time, only that evolution, with its speed limit measured in generations, could not possibly have adapted our brains to modern technology and institutions. Humans today rely on cognitive faculties that worked well enough in traditional societies, but which we now see are infested with bugs.
But we’re not all bad. Human cognition comes with two features that give it the means to transcend its limitations. The first is abstraction. People can co-opt their concept of an object at a place and use it to conceptualize an entity in a circumstance,..They can do this not just with the elements of thought but with more complex assemblies, allowing them to think in metaphors and analogies: heat is a fluid, a message is a container, a society is a family, obligations are bonds.
The second stepladder of cognition is its combinatorial, recursive power. The mind can entertain an explosive variety of ideas by assembling basic concepts like thing, place, path, actor, cause, and goal into propositions.
So for all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. major brainchildren of the Enlightenment.
Chapter 3 Counter-Enlightenments
Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
….the disdain for reason, science, humanism, and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic circles…No sooner did people step into the light than they were advised that darkness wasn’t so bad after all, that they should stop daring to understand so much, that dogmas and formulas deserved another chance, and that human nature’s destiny was not progress but decline...It sounds mad, but in the 21st century those counter-Enlightenment ideals continue to be found across a surprising range of elite cultural and intellectual movements. The notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering is considered crass, naïve, wimpy, square.
Pinker describes some of the popular alternatives to reason, science, humanism, and progress, the most obvious being religious faith, and also the counter-enlightenment idea that
...people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up.
Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.
One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology…Another form of declines worries about the opposite problem - not that modernity has made life too harsh and dangerous, but that it has made it too pleasant and safe.
But it’s the idea of progress that sticks most firmly in the craw…Since any defense of reason, science, and humanism would count for nothing if, two hundred and fifty years after the Enlightenment, we’re no better off than our ancestors in the Dark Ages, an appraisal of human progress is where the case must begin.
I will resume my abstracting in a subsequent post, continuing with Part II, Chapter 4 "Progressophobia'

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Culture of Empathy

While approving comments submitted on a MindBlog post, I always go back and read the post. (I have to vet comments, because most are designed to get clicks on links to commercial sites). I sometimes find posts referencing sites that I really wish I had stayed in touch with. This following example is a slightly edited re-posting of an item from 2012:

I have finally taken time to look more thoroughly at a site noted in a comment to my July 25 post on compassion research. The "Culture of Empathy" site is an aggregator of resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It makes interesting, if a bit overwhelming, browsing. I feel like a complete trogdolyte as only now do I notice sites like CAUSES that hosts seven different empathy related causes that one can sign on to, listing the very same gentleman who commented on my post (Edwin Rutsch) as leader.  Mr. Rutsch would also like you to join the Empathy Center Page on Facebook, and join him on Facebook Causes. This guy really gets around! The Culture of Empathy website lists summaries of a large number of interviews, book reviews, and conferences involving Mr. Rutsch, noting the neuroscience of empathy (things like mirror neurons, etc.), different cultural aspects of empathy, linguistics.... I guess its gotta be a good thing, but while fully thinking that my own behavior could certainly be leavened by a more empathetic bias, I'm overwhelmed by this web input to the point of inaction regarding social venues to support.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Computerized Gaydar - a threat to privacy and safety of gay people

My Oct. 13, 2017 post dealt with controversy over an article referenced as forthcoming that showed neural networks to be more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation. It has now appeared, and I want to pass on its abstract here:
We show that faces contain much more information about sexual orientation than can be perceived or interpreted by the human brain. We used deep neural networks to extract features from 35,326 facial images. These features were entered into a logistic regression aimed at classifying sexual orientation. Given a single facial image, a classifier could correctly distinguish between gay and heterosexual men in 81% of cases, and in 71% of cases for women. Human judges achieved much lower accuracy: 61% for men and 54% for women. The accuracy of the algorithm increased to 91% and 83%, respectively, given five facial images per person. Facial features employed by the classifier included both fixed (e.g., nose shape) and transient facial features (e.g., grooming style). Consistent with the prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation, gay men and women tended to have gender-atypical facial morphology, expression, and grooming styles. Prediction models aimed at gender alone allowed for detecting gay males with 57% accuracy and gay females with 58% accuracy. Those findings advance our understanding of the origins of sexual orientation and the limits of human perception. Additionally, given that companies and governments are increasingly using computer vision algorithms to detect people’s intimate traits, our findings expose a threat to the privacy and safety of gay men and women. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Amygdala structure and defense of the social system.

Nam et al. examine the neuroanatomical substrates of preferences for maintaining existing social arrangements.
Individual variation in preferences to maintain versus change the societal status quo can manifest in the political realm by choosing leaders and policies that reinforce or undermine existing inequalities1. We sought to understand which individuals are likely to defend or challenge inequality in society by exploring the neuroanatomical substrates of system justification tendencies. In two independent neuroimaging studies, we observed that larger bilateral amygdala volume was positively correlated with the tendency to believe that the existing social order was legitimate and desirable. These results held for members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups (men and women, respectively). Furthermore, individuals with larger amygdala volume were less likely to participate in subsequent protest movements. We ruled out alternative explanations in terms of attitudinal extremity and political orientation per se. Exploratory whole-brain analyses suggested that system justification effects may extend to structures that are adjacent to the amygdala, including parts of the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. These findings suggest that the amygdala may provide a neural substrate for maintaining the societal status quo, and opens avenues for further investigation into the association between system justification and other neuroanatomical regions.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Our microbiome challenges our concept of self.

Rees et al. offer an interesting perspective on the significance of our microbiome. Their abstract:
Today, the three classical biological explanations of the individual self––the immune system, the brain, the genome––are being challenged by the new field of microbiome research. Evidence shows that our resident microbes orchestrate the adaptive immune system, influence the brain, and contribute more gene functions than our own genome. The realization that humans are not individual, discrete entities but rather the outcome of ever-changing interactions with microorganisms has consequences beyond the biological disciplines. In particular, it calls into question the assumption that distinctive human traits set us apart from all other animals––and therefore also the traditional disciplinary divisions between the arts and the sciences.
Here from the discussion is their development (a bit shaky, I think) of the last point in the abstract:
Historically, the division of labor between faculties of arts and faculties of science emerged in the 18th century, alongside the idea that humans are more than mere nature––that there are human-exclusive capacities that set us apart from “mere” animals and plants. More specifically, the argument was that reason, language, and art had liberated the human from the contingencies of nature and had gradually given rise to a uniquely human world, a world of “culture” that is irreducible to the laws of nature and that therefore requires its own set of sciences (the term “culture” was first used to mark a distinctive human world in the late 1770s). Arguably, the findings of microbiome research profoundly trouble the comprehension of the human that has sustained the traditional distinction between the natural sciences (concerned with the nonhuman) and the arts (concerned with the human as more than mere nature). Provocatively put, if humans depend on microorganisms, then what is at stake in the study of microbes qua microbes is not only an understanding of microorganisms but also the human. This doesn’t mean that the field of the arts can now be conveniently ploughed in terms of the natural sciences. On the contrary, it means that the stakes of the natural sciences exceed the expertise of the natural sciences and reach over into the arts. This makes a close collaboration of the life sciences with the human sciences imperative.
As we see it, it is important but not enough to argue that we have never been individuals –– or to suggest that human and microbial worlds are inseparably entangled. What is needed, in addition, is a whole new configuration of research, one where arts and science are combined. The challenge is 2-fold. Researchers in the life sciences have to learn that the stakes of their research are bigger than their expertise, and researchers in the arts have to learn to think the human––philosophy, politics, and poetry––beyond the now untenable idea that humans are more than mere nature. The challenge is big, the opportunity even bigger: it is time, and perhaps past time, to rethink collaboratively––beyond arts and science divisions––what it means to be a living human being at home in a microbial world, one on which we depend and with which we are inseparably interwoven. Microbiome science has the exciting––the important––potential to catalyze the breakdown of the anachronistic barriers between the natural and the human sciences and enable a truly integrated understanding of what it means to be human, after the illusion of the bounded, individual self. The human is more than the human.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

When our eyes move, our eardrums move.

Interesting stuff from Gruters et al.:

The peripheral hearing system contains several motor mechanisms that allow the brain to modify the auditory transduction process. Movements or tensioning of either the middle ear muscles or the outer hair cells modifies eardrum motion, producing sounds that can be detected by a microphone placed in the ear canal (e.g., as otoacoustic emissions). Here, we report a form of eardrum motion produced by the brain via these systems: oscillations synchronized with and covarying with the direction and amplitude of saccades. These observations suggest that a vision-related process modulates the first stage of hearing. In particular, these eye movement-related eardrum oscillations may help the brain connect sights and sounds despite changes in the spatial relationship between the eyes and the ears.
Interactions between sensory pathways such as the visual and auditory systems are known to occur in the brain, but where they first occur is uncertain. Here, we show a multimodal interaction evident at the eardrum. Ear canal microphone measurements in humans (n = 19 ears in 16 subjects) and monkeys (n = 5 ears in three subjects) performing a saccadic eye movement task to visual targets indicated that the eardrum moves in conjunction with the eye movement. The eardrum motion was oscillatory and began as early as 10 ms before saccade onset in humans or with saccade onset in monkeys. These eardrum movements, which we dub eye movement-related eardrum oscillations (EMREOs), occurred in the absence of a sound stimulus. The amplitude and phase of the EMREOs depended on the direction and horizontal amplitude of the saccade. They lasted throughout the saccade and well into subsequent periods of steady fixation. We discuss the possibility that the mechanisms underlying EMREOs create eye movement-related binaural cues that may aid the brain in evaluating the relationship between visual and auditory stimulus locations as the eyes move.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Human cooperation in dynamic networks.

Melamed et al. show that the emergence of cooperative networks of humans does not require knowledge of the reputations of participants, only the severing of ties to non-cooperators.

Understanding the patterns and processes of human cooperation is of central scientific importance. Networks can promote cooperation when their existing or emergent topology allows conditional cooperators in the network to isolate themselves from exploitation by noncooperators. We do not know from prior work whether the emergent structures that promote cooperation are driven by reputation or can emerge purely via dynamics, i.e., the severing of ties to noncooperators and the formation of new ties irrespective of reputational information. Here we demonstrate, experimentally, that dynamic networks yield very high rates of cooperation even without reputational knowledge. Further, we identify realistic conditions under which static networks (where ties cannot be altered) yield cooperation rates as high as those in dynamic networks.
Humans’ propensity to cooperate is driven by our embeddedness in social networks. A key mechanism through which networks promote cooperation is clustering. Within clusters, conditional cooperators are insulated from exploitation by noncooperators, allowing them to reap the benefits of cooperation. Dynamic networks, where ties can be shed and new ties formed, allow for the endogenous emergence of clusters of cooperators. Although past work suggests that either reputation processes or network dynamics can increase clustering and cooperation, existing work on network dynamics conflates reputations and dynamics. Here we report results from a large-scale experiment (total n = 2,675) that embedded participants in clustered or random networks that were static or dynamic, with varying levels of reputational information. Results show that initial network clustering predicts cooperation in static networks, but not in dynamic ones. Further, our experiment shows that while reputations are important for partner choice, cooperation levels are driven purely by dynamics. Supplemental conditions confirmed this lack of a reputation effect. Importantly, we find that when participants make individual choices to cooperate or defect with each partner, as opposed to a single decision that applies to all partners (as is standard in the literature on cooperation in networks), cooperation rates in static networks are as high as cooperation rates in dynamic networks. This finding highlights the importance of structured relations for sustained cooperation, and shows how giving experimental participants more realistic choices has important consequences for whether dynamic networks promote higher levels of cooperation than static networks.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Welcome to the post text future (of the new authoritarian state?)

White males (and the republican party) seem to perceive that the most effective way to maintain their current prominence as they continue to become a minority of the population is to enable movement towards an authoritarian state by suppressing minority voting and delegitimizing the institutions protecting democracy. Today’s Hungary provides an example of a single party ‘democracy’ led by a powerful leader. A fascinating sequence of articles in the New York Times describes additional powerful tools that have been moving public discourse from a rational textual context towards emotional visual video communication employing simple powerful memes. So far, the right has been more effective at exploiting such memes than the left. From Farhad Manjoo's article:
...An online culture ruled by pictures and sounds rather than text is going to alter much about how we understand the world around us.
The haze of misinformation hanging over online life will only darken under multimedia — think of your phone as a Hollywood-grade visual-effects studio that could be used to make anyone appear to say or do anything. The ability to search audio and video as easily as we search text means, effectively, the end of any private space.
Then there’s the more basic question of how pictures and sounds alter how we think. An information system dominated by pictures and sounds prizes emotion over rationality. It’s a world where slogans and memes have more sticking power than arguments. (Remind you of anyone?) And will someone please think of the children: Do you know how much power YouTube has over your kids? Are you afraid to find out?
But what are we going to do? There seems no going back now. For text, the writing is on the wall.
Bowles describes the mainstreaming of political memes online:
Groups like the conservative Look Ahead America and the liberal Center for Story-Based Strategy emerged to nurture memers, and big political donors like George Soros and the Mercer family funded meme efforts.
“It’s almost like a new means of communication — the image and emotion and creation,” said Matt Braynard, 39, the former director of data for Mr. Trump’s campaign, who is now the executive director of Look Ahead America. “I don’t want to call it literature, but it has an art.”
Organizers on both the left and right said the left has so far been slower to adapt to meme politics. To catch up, Sean Eldridge, husband of the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is working on creating shareable content with Stand Up America, a progressive nonprofit that opposes President Trump. And the activist John Sellers’s The Other 98% has received funding from Open Society Foundations, a group backed by Mr. Soros.
Andrew Boyd, who designs campaigns for social change, was one of the first to document political memes, writing a seminal essay, “Truth is a Virus,” in 2002. He argued that the most important recent political meme has not come from either party’s campaign or donors but from the #MeToo movement around sexual harassment.
“It has a crystal quality to it, a simplicity, and elegance, something that feels right and organized,” said Mr. Boyd, 55. “Me too. Me too. That happened to me too. The best memes are very populist, and yet they have a precision.”
I won't pass on any further chunks, but strongly urge MindBlog readers to check out the sequence of articles in the NY Times special segment.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Ancient origins of walking on land - the walking skate.

From Jung et al., in the Feb. 8 issue of Cell, report finding that the circuits underlying vertebrate ambulation on dry land appear in a skate many millions of years before fish crawled out of the prehistoric ocean.

•The little skate Leucoraja erinacea exhibits bipedal walking-like behaviors 
•Neuronal subtypes essential for walking originated in primitive jawed fish 
•Fin and limb motor neurons share a common Hox-dependent gene network 
•Modulation of Hox patterning facilitates evolutionary changes in MN organization
Walking is the predominant locomotor behavior expressed by land-dwelling vertebrates, but it is unknown when the neural circuits that are essential for limb control first appeared. Certain fish species display walking-like behaviors, raising the possibility that the underlying circuitry originated in primitive marine vertebrates. We show that the neural substrates of bipedalism are present in the little skate Leucoraja erinacea, whose common ancestor with tetrapods existed ∼420 million years ago. Leucoraja exhibits core features of tetrapod locomotor gaits, including left-right alternation and reciprocal extension-flexion of the pelvic fins. Leucoraja also deploys a remarkably conserved Hox transcription factor-dependent program that is essential for selective innervation of fin/limb muscle. This network encodes peripheral connectivity modules that are distinct from those used in axial muscle-based swimming and has apparently been diminished in most modern fish. These findings indicate that the circuits that are essential for walking evolved through adaptation of a genetic regulatory network shared by all vertebrates with paired appendages.