Monday, October 25, 2021

Scientific fields don't advance if too many papers are published.

Fascinating work from Chu and Evans


The size of scientific fields may impede the rise of new ideas. Examining 1.8 billion citations among 90 million papers across 241 subjects, we find a deluge of papers does not lead to turnover of central ideas in a field, but rather to ossification of canon. Scholars in fields where many papers are published annually face difficulty getting published, read, and cited unless their work references already widely cited articles. New papers containing potentially important contributions cannot garner field-wide attention through gradual processes of diffusion. These findings suggest fundamental progress may be stymied if quantitative growth of scientific endeavors—in number of scientists, institutes, and papers—is not balanced by structures fostering disruptive scholarship and focusing attention on novel ideas.
In many academic fields, the number of papers published each year has increased significantly over time. Policy measures aim to increase the quantity of scientists, research funding, and scientific output, which is measured by the number of papers produced. These quantitative metrics determine the career trajectories of scholars and evaluations of academic departments, institutions, and nations. Whether and how these increases in the numbers of scientists and papers translate into advances in knowledge is unclear, however. Here, we first lay out a theoretical argument for why too many papers published each year in a field can lead to stagnation rather than advance. The deluge of new papers may deprive reviewers and readers the cognitive slack required to fully recognize and understand novel ideas. Competition among many new ideas may prevent the gradual accumulation of focused attention on a promising new idea. Then, we show data supporting the predictions of this theory. When the number of papers published per year in a scientific field grows large, citations flow disproportionately to already well-cited papers; the list of most-cited papers ossifies; new papers are unlikely to ever become highly cited, and when they do, it is not through a gradual, cumulative process of attention gathering; and newly published papers become unlikely to disrupt existing work. These findings suggest that the progress of large scientific fields may be slowed, trapped in existing canon. Policy measures shifting how scientific work is produced, disseminated, consumed, and rewarded may be called for to push fields into new, more fertile areas of study.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Metabolism modulates network synchrony in the aging brain

Wow, this work from Weistuch et al. temps me to reconsider my decision to stay away from the various mitochondrial metabolism stimulating supplements I have experimented with over the past 10-15 years (they made me a bit hyper). It has been hypothesized that declining glucose metabolism in older brains drives the loss of high-cost (integrated) functional activities (activities of the sort I'm trying to carry out at the moment in cobbling together a coherent lecture from diverse sources). From the paper's introduction:
We draw on two types of experimental evidence. First, as established using positron emission tomography, older brains show reduced glucose metabolism. Second, as established by functional MRI (fMRI), aging is associated with weakened functional connectivity (FC; i.e., reduced communication [on average] between brain regions). Combining both observations suggests that impaired glucose metabolism may underlie changes in FC. Supporting this link are studies showing disruptions similar to those seen with aging in type 2 diabetic subjects.

The Significance Statement and Abstract:  


How do brains adapt to changing resource constraints? This is particularly relevant in the aging brain, for which the ability of neurons to utilize their primary energy source, glucose, is diminished. Through experiments and modeling, we find that changes to brain activity patterns with age can be understood in terms of decreasing metabolic activity. Specifically, we find that older brains approach a critical point in our model, enabling small changes in metabolic activity to give rise to an abrupt reconfiguration of functional brain networks.
Brain aging is associated with hypometabolism and global changes in functional connectivity. Using functional MRI (fMRI), we show that network synchrony, a collective property of brain activity, decreases with age. Applying quantitative methods from statistical physics, we provide a generative (Ising) model for these changes as a function of the average communication strength between brain regions. We find that older brains are closer to a critical point of this communication strength, in which even small changes in metabolism lead to abrupt changes in network synchrony. Finally, by experimentally modulating metabolic activity in younger adults, we show how metabolism alone—independent of other changes associated with aging—can provide a plausible candidate mechanism for marked reorganization of brain network topology.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A debate over stewardship of global collective behavior

In this post I'm going to pass on the abstract of a PNAS perspective piece by Bak-Coleman et al., a critique by Cheong and Jones and a reply to the critique by Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom. First the Bak-Coleman et al. abstract:
Collective behavior provides a framework for understanding how the actions and properties of groups emerge from the way individuals generate and share information. In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies. Our larger, more complex social networks now transfer high-fidelity information over vast distances at low cost. The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences. This gap in our knowledge represents a principal challenge to scientific progress, democracy, and actions to address global crises. We argue that the study of collective behavior must rise to a “crisis discipline” just as medicine, conservation, and climate science have, with a focus on providing actionable insight to policymakers and regulators for the stewardship of social systems.
The critique by Cheong and Jones:
In vivid detail, Bak-Coleman et al. describe explosively multiplicative global pathologies of scale posing existential risk to humanity. They argue that the study of collective behavior in the age of digital social media must rise to a “crisis discipline” dedicated to averting global ruin through the adaptive manipulation of social dynamics and the emergent phenomenon of collective behavior. Their proposed remedy is a massive global, multidisciplinary coalition of scientific experts to discover how the “dispersed networks” of digital media can be expertly manipulated through “urgent, evidence-based research” to “steward” social dynamics into “rapid and effective collective behavioral responses,” analogous to “providing regulators with information” to guide the stewardship of ecosystems. They picture the enlightened harnessing of yet-to-be-discovered scale-dependent rules of internet-age social dynamics as a route to fostering the emergent phenomenon of adaptive swarm intelligence.
We wish to issue an urgent warning of our own: Responding to the self-evident fulminant, rampaging pathologies of scale ravaging the planet with yet another pathology of scale will, at best, be ineffective and, at worst, counterproductive. It is the same thing that got us here. The complex international coalition they propose would be like forming a new, ultramodern weather bureau to furnish consensus recommendations to policy makers while a megahurricane is already making landfall. This conjures images of foot dragging, floor fights, and consensus building while looking for actionable “mechanistic insight” into social dynamics on the deck of the Titanic. After lucidly spotlighting the urgent scale-dependent mechanistic nature of the crisis, Bak-Coleman et al. do not propose any immediate measures to reduce scale, but rather offer that there “is reason to be hopeful that well-designed systems can promote healthy collective action at scale...” Hope is neither a strategy nor an action.
Despite lofty goals, the coalition they propose does not match the urgency or promise a rapid and collective behavioral response to the existential threats they identify. Scale reduction may be “collective,” but achieving it will have to be local, authentic, and without delay—that is, a response conforming to the “all hands on deck” swarm intelligence phenomena that are well described in eusocial species already. When faced with the potential for imminent global ruin lurking ominously in the fat tail (5) of the future distribution, the precautionary principle dictates that we should respond with now-or-never urgency. This is a simple fact. A “weather bureau” for social dynamics would certainly be a valuable, if not indispensable, institution for future generations. But there is no reason that scientists around the world, acting as individuals within their own existing social networks and spheres of influence, observing what is already obvious with their own eyes, cannot immediately create a collective chorus to send this message through every digital channel instead of waiting for a green light from above. “Urgency” is euphemistic. It is now or never.
The Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom reply to the critique:
In our PNAS article “Stewardship of global collective behavior”, we describe the breakneck pace of recent innovations in information technology. This radical transformation has transpired not through a stewarded effort to improve information quality or to further human well-being. Rather, current technologies have been developed and deployed largely for the orthogonal purpose of keeping people engaged online. We cannot expect that an information ecology organized around ad sales will promote sustainability, equity, or global health. In the face of such impediments to rational democratic action, how can we hope to overcome threats such as global warming, habitat destruction, mass extinction, war, food security, and pandemic disease? We call for a concerted transdisciplinary response, analogous to other crisis disciplines such as conservation ecology and climate science.
In their letter, Cheong and Jones share our vision of the problem—but they express frustration at the absence of an immediately actionable solution to the enormity of challenges that we describe. They assert “swarm intelligence begins now or never” and advocate local, authentic, and immediate “scale reduction.” It’s an appealing thought: Let us counter pathologies of scale by somehow reversing course.
But it’s not clear what this would entail by way of practical, safe, ethical, and effective intervention. Have there ever been successful, voluntary, large-scale reductions in the scale of any aspect of human social life?
Nor is there reason to believe that an arbitrary, hasty, and heuristically decided large-scale restructuring of our social networks would reduce the long tail of existential risk. Rather, rapid shocks to complex systems are a canonical source of cascading failure. Moving fast and breaking things got us here. We can’t expect it to get us out.
Nor do we share the authors’ optimism about what scientists can accomplish with “a collective chorus … through every digital channel”. It is difficult to envision a louder, more vehement, and more cohesive scientific response than that to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this unified call for basic public health measures—grounded in centuries of scientific knowledge—nonetheless failed to mobilize political leadership and popular opinion.
Our views do align when it comes to the “now-or-never urgency” that Cheong and Jones highlight. Indeed, this is a key feature of a crisis discipline: We must act without delay to steer a complex system—while still lacking a complete understanding of how that system operates.
As scholars, our job is to call attention to underappreciated threats and to provide the knowledge base for informed decision-making. Academics do not—and should not—engage in large-scale social engineering. Our grounded view of what science can and should do in a crisis must not be mistaken for lassitude or unconcern. Worldwide, the unprecedented restructuring of human communication is having an enormous impact on issues of social choice, often to our detriment. Our paper is intended to raise the alarm. Providing the definitive solution will be a task for a much broader community of scientists, policy makers, technologists, ethicists, and other voices from around the globe.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Paws for thought: Dogs have a theory of mind?

In a very simple experiment, Schünemann et al. appear to demonstrate that dogs can attribute thoughts and motivations to humans, distinguishing intentional from unintentional actions. From The Guardian summary of the work:
...A researcher was pass treats to a dog through a gap in a screen. During the process the researcher tested the dog on three conditions: in one they attempted to offer a treat but “accidentally” dropped it on their side of the screen and said “oops!”, in another, they tried to offer a treat but the gap was blocked. In a third, the researcher offered the treat, but then suddenly withdrew it and said: “Ha ha!” all three situations they don’t get the food for some reason...The results, based on analysis of video recordings of 51 dogs, reveal that the dogs waited longer before walking around the screen to get the treat directly in the case of the sudden withdrawal of the morsel than for the other two situations. They were also more likely stop wagging their tail and sit or lie down...the dogs clearly show different behaviour between the different conditions, suggesting that they distinguish intentional actions from unintentional behavior.
There is debate over whether this behavior - distinguishing human behaviors based on their intentions rather than some other cue - meets the level of understanding that qualifies as having a 'theory of Mind.'

Friday, October 15, 2021

The dark side of Eureka: Artificially induced Aha moments make facts feel true

Fascinating observations from Laukkonen et al:
Some ideas that we have feel mundane, but others are imbued with a sense of profundity. We propose that Aha! moments make an idea feel more true or valuable in order to aid quick and efficient decision-making, akin to a heuristic. To demonstrate where the heuristic may incur errors, we hypothesized that facts would appear more true if they were artificially accompanied by an Aha! moment elicited using an anagram task. In a preregistered experiment, we found that participants (n = 300) provided higher truth ratings for statements accompanied by solved anagrams even if the facts were false, and the effect was particularly pronounced when participants reported an Aha! experience (d = .629). Recent work suggests that feelings of insight usually accompany correct ideas. However, here we show that feelings of insight can be overgeneralized and bias how true an idea or fact appears, simply if it occurs in the temporal ‘neighbourhood’ of an Aha! moment. We raise the possibility that feelings of insight, epiphanies, and Aha! moments have a dark side, and discuss some circumstances where they may even inspire false beliefs and delusions, with potential clinical importance.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

National religiosity eases the psychological burden of poverty

From Berkessel et al.:  


According to a fundamental assumption in the social sciences, the burden of lower socioeconomic status (SES) is more severe in developing nations. In contrast to this assumption, recent research has shown that the burden of lower SES is less—not more—severe in developing nations. In three large-scale global data sets, we show that national religiosity can explain this puzzling finding. Developing nations are more religious, and most world religions uphold norms that, in part, function to ease the burden of lower SES and to cast a bad light on higher SES. In times of declining religiosity, this finding is a call to scientists and policymakers to monitor the increasingly harmful effects of lower SES and its far-reaching social consequences.
Lower socioeconomic status (SES) harms psychological well-being, an effect responsible for widespread human suffering. This effect has long been assumed to weaken as nations develop economically. Recent evidence, however, has contradicted this fundamental assumption, finding instead that the psychological burden of lower SES is even greater in developed nations than in developing ones. That evidence has elicited consternation because it suggests that economic development is no cure for the psychological burden of lower SES. So, why is that burden greatest in developed nations? Here, we test whether national religiosity can explain this puzzle. National religiosity is particularly low in developed nations. Consequently, developed nations lack religious norms that may ease the burden of lower SES. Drawing on three different data sets of 1,567,204, 1,493,207, and 274,393 people across 156, 85, and 92 nations, we show that low levels of national religiosity can account for the greater burden of lower SES in developed nations. This finding suggests that, as national religiosity continues to decline, lower SES will become increasingly harmful for well-being—a societal change that is socially consequential and demands political attention.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Precision and the Bayesian brain

I've been studying and trying to understand the new prevailing model of how our brains work that is emerging - the brain as a Baysean predictive processing machine that compares its prior knowledge with incoming evidence of its correctness. If a mis-match occurs that might suggest alterning a prior expectation, the precision of the incoming evidence is very important. In a recent issue of Current Biology Yon and Frith offer a very simple and lucid primer (open source) on what precision is how it influences adrenergic and dopaminergic neuromodulatory systems to alter the synaptic gain afforded to top-down predictions and bottom-up evidence.:
Scientific thinking about the minds of humans and other animals has been transformed by the idea that the brain is Bayesian. A cornerstone of this idea is that agents set the balance between prior knowledge and incoming evidence based on how reliable or ‘precise’ these different sources of information are — lending the most weight to that which is most reliable. This concept of precision has crept into several branches of cognitive science and is a lynchpin of emerging ideas in computational psychiatry — where unusual beliefs or experiences are explained as abnormalities in how the brain estimates precision. But what precisely is precision? In this Primer we explain how precision has found its way into classic and contemporary models of perception, learning, self-awareness, and social interaction. We also chart how ideas around precision are beginning to change in radical ways, meaning we must get more precise about how precision works.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Reconsolidation of a reactivated memory can be altered by stress hormone levels.

Stern's summary in Science Magazine of work by Antypa et al.:
Reactivation of a memory can make it malleable to subsequent change during reconsolidation. Targeted pharmacological and behavioral manipulations after memory reactivation can modulate reconsolidation and modify the memory. Antypa et al. investigated whether changes in stress hormone levels during sleep affected later memory of a reactivated episode. The authors recited a story accompanied by a slide show to a group of male and female subjects. If subjects were given treatment to block cortisol synthesis during early morning sleep, then their 3-day-old memory of the story was more precisely recalled than if the early morning cortisol spike was uncontrolled. However, this improvement only occurred if the subjects had been given a visual cue for the story just before anti-cortisol treatment.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Perceived voice emotions evolve from categories to dimensions

Whether emotions are best characterized as discrete catagories (anger, fear, joy, etc.) or as points on continuums of valence (positive/negative) and arousal (calm/agitated) has been debated by emotion researchers for many years. Work from Giordano et al. suggests that both descriptions may be appropriate. They find that categories prevail in perceptual and early (less than 200 ms) frontotemporal cerebral representational geometries and that dimensions impinge predominantly on a later limbic–temporal network (at 240 ms and after 500 ms).
Long-standing affective science theories conceive the perception of emotional stimuli either as discrete categories (for example, an angry voice) or continuous dimensional attributes (for example, an intense and negative vocal emotion). Which position provides a better account is still widely debated. Here we contrast the positions to account for acoustics-independent perceptual and cerebral representational geometry of perceived voice emotions. We combined multimodal imaging of the cerebral response to heard vocal stimuli (using functional magnetic resonance imaging and magneto-encephalography) with post-scanning behavioural assessment of voice emotion perception. By using representational similarity analysis, we find that categories prevail in perceptual and early (less than 200 ms) frontotemporal cerebral representational geometries and that dimensions impinge predominantly on a later limbic–temporal network (at 240 ms and after 500 ms). These results reconcile the two opposing views by reframing the perception of emotions as the interplay of cerebral networks with different representational dynamics that emphasize either categories or dimensions.

Monday, October 04, 2021

Music can be infectious like a virus - the same mathematical model works for both

Rosati et al. find that a standard model of epidemic disease, called the SIR model, fitts trends in song downloads over time:
Popular songs are often said to be ‘contagious’, ‘infectious’ or ‘viral’. We find that download count time series for many popular songs resemble infectious disease epidemic curves. This paper suggests infectious disease transmission models could help clarify mechanisms that contribute to the ‘spread’ of song preferences and how these mechanisms underlie song popularity. We analysed data from MixRadio, comprising song downloads through Nokia cell phones in Great Britain from 2007 to 2014. We compared the ability of the standard susceptible–infectious–recovered (SIR) epidemic model and a phenomenological (spline) model to fit download time series of popular songs. We fitted these same models to simulated epidemic time series generated by the SIR model. Song downloads are captured better by the SIR model, to the same extent that actual SIR simulations are fitted better by the SIR model than by splines. This suggests that the social processes underlying song popularity are similar to those that drive infectious disease transmission. We draw conclusions about song popularity within specific genres based on estimated SIR parameters. In particular, we argue that faster spread of preferences for Electronica songs may reflect stronger connectivity of the ‘susceptible community’, compared with the larger and broader community that listens to more common genres.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Can we get human nature right?

Iris Berent does an interesting Perspective artice in PNAS that considers the strong intuitions that laypeople hold about human nature. People's attitudes bifurcate for "hot emotions" and "cold ideas." Emotions, people believe, are innate, whereas ideas must be learned. She suggests that the dissonance between intuitive dualism and essentialism explains why emotions and ideas elicit such conflicting reactions. Here is her summary graphic, followed by the article's abstract: 

Few questions in science are as controversial as human nature. At stake is whether our basic concepts and emotions are all learned from experience, or whether some are innate. Here, I demonstrate that reasoning about innateness is biased by the basic workings of the human mind. Psychological science suggests that newborns possess core concepts of “object” and “number.” Laypeople, however, believe that newborns are devoid of such notions but that they can recognize emotions. Moreover, people presume that concepts are learned, whereas emotions (along with sensations and actions) are innate. I trace these beliefs to two tacit psychological principles: intuitive dualism and essentialism. Essentialism guides tacit reasoning about biological inheritance and suggests that innate traits reside in the body; per intuitive dualism, however, the mind seems ethereal, distinct from the body. It thus follows that, in our intuitive psychology, concepts (which people falsely consider as disembodied) must be learned, whereas emotions, sensations, and emotions (which are considered embodied) are likely innate; these predictions are in line with the experimental results. These conclusions do not speak to the question of whether concepts and emotions are innate, but they suggest caution in its scientific evaluation.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

How the unvaccinated threaten the vaccinated for COVID-19: A Darwinian perspective

From the current issue of PNAS that just appeared I want to immediately pass on the entire text of the  open source piece by Emanuel Goldman. Its points crystallize my anger at those across the globe whose resistance to vaccination for COVID-19 puts us all at risk by making more likely the emergence of a new variant against which our existing vaccinations are ineffective. The text:

Imai et al. (1) have characterized yet another variant of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus responsible for COVID-19, this one originating in Brazil. The good news is that it appears that vaccines currently available are still expected to provide protection against this variant. However, what about the next variant, one we have not seen yet? Will we still be protected?

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (2), in which he outlined the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. The world presently has the unwelcome opportunity to see the principles of evolution as enumerated by Darwin play out in real time, in the interactions of the human population with SARS-CoV-2. The world could have easily skipped this unpleasant lesson, had there not been such large numbers of the human population unwilling to be vaccinated against this disease.

SARS-CoV-2 has shown that it can mutate into many variants of the original agent (3). An unvaccinated pool of individuals provides a reservoir for the virus to continue to grow and multiply, and therefore more opportunities for such variants to emerge. When this occurs within a background of a largely vaccinated population, natural selection will favor a variant that is resistant to the vaccine.

So far, we have been lucky that the variants that have emerged can still be somewhat controlled by current vaccines, probably because these variants evolved in mostly unvaccinated populations and were not subject to selective pressure of having to grow in vaccinated hosts. Nevertheless, the Delta variant is exhibiting increased frequency of breakthrough infections among the vaccinated (4).

The real danger is a future variant, which will be the legacy of those people who are not getting vaccinated providing a breeding ground for the virus to continue to generate variants. A variant could arise that is resistant to current vaccines, rendering those already vaccinated susceptible again.

Progress we have made in overcoming the pandemic will be lost. New vaccines will have to be developed. Lockdowns and masks will once again be required. Many more who are currently protected, especially among the vulnerable, will die.

This dire prediction need not occur if universal vaccination is adopted, or mandated, to protect everyone, including those who are already vaccinated.

Darwinian selection may also yet solve the problem with a much crueler calculus. The unvaccinated will either get sick and survive, and therefore be the equivalent of vaccinated, or they will die and therefore be removed as breeding grounds for the virus.

The National Archives in the United Kingdom note that, in 1665, during the Black Death plague, “to prevent the disease spreading, a victim was locked in their house with their entire family, condemning them all to death” (5). Vaccinations offer a much more humane response to prevent spread of this disease. The path forward is in the hands of the unvaccinated, and in the political will of the authorities.


Monday, September 27, 2021

Models of how political polarization happens

I want to recommend the article "Modeling the power of polarization" by Waldrop in the Sept. 14th PNAS (open source). I pass on just a few fragments:
There are two kinds of polarization that the media and the public often get confused... One type is issue polarization: “how much people disagree on policies like ‘What should be the tax rates?’, or ‘What should be the laws to regulate guns?’.” Those divisions have been widening of late. But they aren’t nearly as incendiary as social or “affective” polarization, which is about anger, distrust, resentment, tribal identity, and mutual loathing (see Figure, click to enlarge).

Figure Legend - Recent years have seen a marked rise in “affective” polarization, a feeling of mutual dislike and mistrust between the two sides. The trend is illustrated in data from the American National Election Survey: People's feeling of warmth toward members of their own party (green) has held steady since 1980, whereas their feelings toward members of the other party (purple) have dropped. The difference (black) is a measure of affective polarization.

[There are] least four basic strategies for studying any form of polarization...The classic method is observation: using surveys and historical data to track how polarization has increased or decreased over time and which issues have been the most divisive...A second, newer strategy is to analyze the tsunami of data now available from the Internet...very useful for studying things that you cannot learn from a exactly who listens to whom and how ideas spread through the resulting social network like a contagion...Then there is the experimental approach: watching how polarization develops among volunteers in a laboratory setting. These experiments allow you to control the conditions, separate the signal from the noise, and tease out what’s cause and what’s effect...finally...models in the form of mathematical equations or computer simulations can help researchers explore the sometimes surprising outcomes of simple starting conditions or assumptions.
Several different kinds of modeling work are described in the article. Here is just the first:
Axelrod, a political scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, "wasn't interested in the left-to-right kind of differences, so I treated ‘culture’ simply as a list of arbitrary features that were observable, like ‘What kind of hat do you wear?’ or ‘What ethnicity are you?’” Next, Axelrod modeled people as independent snippets of code, or “agents,” that could move around a simulated landscape, and gave each agent some initial set of cultural features. Then he set them to interacting with their neighbors according to two simple rules. First, the more items of culture agents share, the more likely they are to interact. And second, if agents do interact, they adopt some feature of the agent they’re interacting with...In sum, says Axelrod, the model was nothing but assimilation plus homophily: “Like gravity, it's all pulling together, right? There's nothing but attraction.” Yet the result wasn’t anything like global consensus. Instead, says Axelrod, the model consistently locked itself into a patchwork resembling the multiple language regions of Europe—or those filter bubbles on Facebook. “It’s what I call local convergence and global polarization,” he says: Cultures do indeed tend toward consensus within a finite region. But at the boundaries, the differences eventually become so stark that the agents on either side quit interacting at all. “So they never talk to each other again,” says Axelrod, “and that's why it freezes.”
Subsequent models take on emotions, show the critical role played by negative emotions, and show how groups tend to split into two cliques. The last section of the article discusses interventions to reduce polarization.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Asymptomatic infection is the pandemic’s dark matter

Fisman and Tuite do a commentary on the article by Sah et al. (open source) that includes a great graphic showing how estimated asymptomatic COVID can be biased in two different ways. I pass on first the graphic and its explanation, and then the Sah et al. significance statement. The bottom line of their meta-analysis is that more than one-third of infections are truly asymptomatic, with greater asymptomaticity in children compared with the elderly:
The... authors address two important biases in the study of asymptomatic infection in their study and note that failure to address these biases distorts estimates of asymptomaticity. The first bias is an ascertainment effect associated with studies including symptomatic index cases in their estimates. The second bias is introduced when studies capture populations of infected individuals at a single time point, which means that presymptomatic individuals (symptomatic cases whose latent period has ended but who have not yet entered the symptomatic stage) are misclassified as asymptomatic. In their review, the authors find that failure to adjust for these biases results in a predictable underestimation of the frequency of asymptomatic infection in the former case, and overestimation of asymptomaticity in the latter.
These biases, and their effects, are described in Fig. 1 (click to enlarge). The circles at the left-hand side of the figure make up a hypothetical population of infected individuals, with a true prevalence of asymptomatic infection (blue circles) of around 33%. If this population attracts notice as a result of an outbreak with notable illness, we may be more likely to sample symptomatic index cases, creating sample A. By contrast, if we are able to sample the population systematically, and obtain a representative sample of infectives, we will create sample B. If we ascertain the prevalence of symptoms at a single point in time, we will misclassify presymptomatic individuals (diagonally shaded circles) as asymptomatic. This will lead to overestimation of the prevalence of asymptomatic infection. In the diagram, 4/9 (44%) of the sample are “asymptomatic” at the first time point in sample A, while 6/9 (67%) are “asymptomatic” in sample B; both samples provide an overestimate of the true probability of asymptomatic infection. If we allow time to pass so that presymptomatic individuals become symptomatic, the probability of asymptomatic infection in sample A drops to 1/9 (11%), a marked underestimate. However, in sample B, the probability declines to 3/9 (33%), which reflects the true underlying probability of asymptomatic infection in the source population.
The Sah et al. significance statement:
Asymptomatic infections have been widely reported for COVID-19. However, many studies do not distinguish between the presymptomatic stage and truly asymptomatic infections. We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of COVID-19 literature reporting laboratory-confirmed infections to determine the burden of asymptomatic infections and removed index cases from our calculations to avoid conflation. By analyzing over 350 papers, we estimated that more than one-third of infections are truly asymptomatic. We found evidence of greater asymptomaticity in children compared with the elderly, and lower asymptomaticity among cases with comorbidities compared to cases with no underlying medical conditions. Greater asymptomaticity at younger ages suggests that heightened vigilance is needed among these individuals, to prevent spillover into the broader community.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Is self awareness a mirage?

David Brooks does a brief psychological essay - a sequel to one described in MindBlog's Sept. 10 post.
One of the most unsettling findings of modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we do what we do...We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the actual sources of judgment, problem-solving and emotion. We know what we’re feeling, just not how and why we got there...we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up some story, or confabulation.
Mary Pipher, the legendary therapist and author of “Reviving Ophelia” ...prefers “what, when, where and how” questions: When do you notice feelings of inferiority? Basically, she wants clients to become closer observers of their own behavior.....Maybe the best way to see yourself is to get out of the deceptive rumination spirals of your own self-consciousness and to think about yourself in the third person...Dan McAdams, the Northwestern scholar who specializes in how people tell their life stories...doubts that we can ever really know why we do anything, so we are compelled to fall back on narratives or what he calls “personal myths.”...some stories are better than others. Stories that are closer to “what really happened” are more reliable than ones that are distorted by self-flattery and self-affirmation... Americans, McAdams has found, tend to tell redemption stories...I was rising, I faltered, I came back better.
Lori Gottlieb, the author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone.” She also sees therapy as a form of story-editing. But she is much more optimistic that we can actually get down to the sources of our behavior...You have to understand the “why,” so you can recognize the behavior when it’s happening again and address what’s causing you to behave as you do.
Epley, the "Mindwise" author, stressed that we can attain true wisdom and pretty good self-awareness by looking at behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives, and highlighted the importance of humility in life... recognizing that we don’t have privileged access to our minds, toneing down our self-confidence and realizing don’t know other people as well as we think we do.”

Monday, September 20, 2021

Secure human attachment can promote support for climate change mitigation

From Misa et al.


Attachment theory focuses on the primal form of emotional bonding between humans. Attachment is conceptualized as an innate behavioral system aimed at safeguarding against potential threats by assuring proximity to caring and supportive others. When individuals feel securely attached (thus feeling less threatened in most situations), the activation of the caregiving behavioral system (concern for others) is facilitated. With this research, we show that priming attachment security influences how much people care about and accept climate change via an increased empathy for humanity. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this activation bypasses the resistance of politically conservative individuals to mitigate climate change. Overall, we show that attachment security–based stimuli can inform intervention and policymaking strategies to help fight climate change.
Attachment theory is an ethological approach to the development of durable, affective ties between humans. We propose that secure attachment is crucial for understanding climate change mitigation, because the latter is inherently a communal phenomenon resulting from joint action and requiring collective behavioral change. Here, we show that priming attachment security increases acceptance (Study 1: n = 173) and perceived responsibility toward anthropogenic climate change (Study 2: n = 209) via increased empathy for others. Next, we demonstrate that priming attachment security, compared to a standard National Geographic video about climate change, increases monetary donations to a proenvironmental group in politically moderate and conservative individuals (Study 3: n = 196). Finally, through a preregistered field study conducted in the United Arab Emirates (Study 4: n = 143,558 food transactions), we show that, compared to a message related to carbon emissions, an attachment security–based message is associated with a reduction in food waste. Taken together, our work suggests that an avenue to promote climate change mitigation could be grounded in core ethological mechanisms associated with secure attachment.

Monday morning tonic - A modern folk song about your brain

Ryan Stotland, a song writer from Montreal, has pointed me to a few of his engaging pieces, and I pass on one of them to you. It rhapsodizes about what different parts of our brains do... (not to worry, if you're a regular MindBlog reader, that the facts presented are phrenological oversimplifications that are a bit out of date.) 


Friday, September 17, 2021

How social mindfulness and prosociality vary across the globe

From Van Doesum et al. (open source) I pass on the abstract, one figure, and a clip of the discussion: Significance
Cooperation is key to well-functioning groups and societies. Rather than addressing high-cost cooperation involving giving money or time and effort, we examine social mindfulness—a form of interpersonal benevolence that requires basic perspective-taking and is aimed at leaving choice for others. Do societies differ in social mindfulness, and if so, does it matter? Here, we find not only considerable variation across 31 nations and regions but also an association between social mindfulness and countries’ performance on environmental protection. We conclude that something as small and concrete as interpersonal benevolence can be entwined with current and future issues of global importance.
Humans are social animals, but not everyone will be mindful of others to the same extent. Individual differences have been found, but would social mindfulness also be shaped by one’s location in the world? Expecting cross-national differences to exist, we examined if and how social mindfulness differs across countries. At little to no material cost, social mindfulness typically entails small acts of attention or kindness. Even though fairly common, such low-cost cooperation has received little empirical attention. Measuring social mindfulness across 31 samples from industrialized countries and regions (n = 8,354), we found considerable variation. Among selected country-level variables, greater social mindfulness was most strongly associated with countries’ better general performance on environmental protection. Together, our findings contribute to the literature on prosociality by targeting the kind of everyday cooperation that is more focused on communicating benevolence than on providing material benefits.  
Distribution of means for Social Mindedness (SoMi), (click to enlarge)
In the end, what best explains the general picture? Considering all findings, we suggest that SoMi may be conceptualized as a specific and effective expression of social capital, a comprehensive perspective on society with important implications for its development and functioning (30). Following one of the definitions, the economic function of social capital is to diminish the costs of formal coordination tasks by using informal social communication channels. From a relational perspective, such capital materializes through social interactions that include low-cost cooperation. Requiring no monetary or otherwise effortful investments to acknowledge, confirm, and promote high-trust social relationships, SoMi would be specifically set up to do so; the socially mindful person signals benevolence and trustworthiness. A promising connection with social capital is also suggested in the ranking of our locations: Japan, highest on the SoMi list, is traditionally known for stressing the value of social capital, and ranks 12th (of 180) on the Global Sustainable Competiveness Index social capital world index, while Indonesia, lowest on the SoMi list, ranks 70. A simple bivariate correlation without corrections learns that SoMi and social capital scores are associated at r (30) = 0.56, P = 0.002. Although quantifying social capital is difficult, this is corroborated by the relations we found between SoMi and the ensemble of variables lead by EPI and followed by economic indices (GDP, GNI, and Gini), rule of law, power distance, individual and generalized trust, and civic cooperation (tendency only), which all in their own way have been connected to presence and development of social capital. Future research could develop this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Domestic dogs: Born human whisperers

Vignieri does a summary of recent work by  Bray et al. and Salomans et al. in Current Biology

The closest relative to dogs, “man’s best friend,” is the wolf, a wily predator that generally avoids human interaction. For decades, researchers and dog owners have wondered how the leap to domestication occurred. The main hypothesis invoked very early selection for wolves that “liked”—or least tolerated—humans, and the connection strengthened from there. However, there is still some debate about whether the degree to which dogs interact and communicate with humans is a learned trait. Two recent studies appear to close the book on this learning hypothesis. Bray et al. looked at about 400 puppies and found that at this young age and without much human interaction, they were adept at following human gestures and positively responded to high-pitched “puppy talk.” Further, there was variation in these responses with an association between relatedness and social communication skills, which supports a genetic driver. Salomons et al. compared dog and wolf puppies and found no difference in general cognitive responses, but much greater responsiveness to human gestures and eye contact, in dog puppies. Importantly, this happened even though the dog pups had received less actual human interaction than did the wolf pups. These studies confirm that dogs’ interest in communication with humans is an evolved trait unique to their lineage.

Monday, September 13, 2021

The 31st First Annual Ig Nobel Ceremony -

I pass on this summary of the virtual awards ceremony.
Musical cats, upside-down rhinos, and submarine cockroaches took the gold last night at the 31stst annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—an awards show honoring research that “makes people laugh, then think.” Although the pandemic kept the ceremony virtual for a second year, organizers made the best of the format. Nobel laureates, including Frances Arnold (chemistry, 2018) and Eric Maskin (economics, 2007), “handed” awardees their prizes—self-assembled 3D paper gears printed with pictures of teeth. This year’s theme was “engineering.”
The biology prize—one of 10 awards—went to a series of studies on the purrs, trills, tweedles, murmurs, meows, yowls, and other sounds cats seem to use to communicate their desires to humans. Cat vocalization researcher Susanne Schötz at Lund University has been hard at work cracking the “cat code” with her collaborators since 2011, handing the microphone to cats to analyze what felines mean when they meow.
Schötz was honored for several papers, including one on how well humans interpret cat “meowsic.” She reported that when cats want food from their owners, their sounds tend to rise in pitch at the end. If the cats are anxious about a trip to the vet, however, they drop their pitch. When she played meows for a group of 30 humans, she found they guessed the cats’ feelings from intonation alone the majority of the time. Cat owners were the best guessers, showing that when it comes to cats, practice makes purrfect.
Other prizes went to research on animals that reached for the sky and dove under the sea. The transportation prize honored researchers who determined that the best way to transport a rhinoceros by helicopter is upside down. This technique has been vital to conservationists who move large animals such as rhinos and elephants to keep them safe from poachers or maintain genetic diversity. During the ceremony, the honorees assured Nobel laureate Richard Roberts (physiology or medicine, 1993) that they’d tested the technique on themselves before trying it on rhinos. Roberts maintained that if he ever had to be transported to a safer place, “I hope not to be doing it upside down.”
The entomology prize highlighted one of the most fraught human-animal relationships: the ongoing battle between humans and cockroaches. For this prize, the awards committee dug deep into the archives for a study from 1971 titled, “A new method of cockroach control on submarines.” Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Mulrennan Jr. accepted the award for developing a new technique for getting rid of cockroaches on navy submarines using a pesticide called dichlorvos after the ethylene oxide gas previously used made someone sick. “The Navy was happy at the time,” he noted in his acceptance speech, although he doesn’t know whether it still uses his technique.
Other awards included the physics prize, for an analysis of why people in crowds don’t constantly run into each other, and the kinetics prize, for a study answering why they sometimes do (the answer: cellphones). The ecology prize went to an analysis of bacteria that hitch a ride on used chewing gum, the peace prize went to a test of how effectively beards protect faces from punches (they soften the blow), and the medicine prize went to a study of whether orgasms can serve as an effective nasal decongestant. (They can, but the effects only last about 1 hour.) Winners also received a fake 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollar bill from Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and host of the ceremony.
Dispersed throughout the night were several “24/7” talks, in which researchers gave full technical descriptions of a scientific topic in 24 seconds followed by a simple explanation in seven words. (“Coffee drinking: good, good for you … maybe!”) To round out the proceedings, scientists and opera singers performed an original three-act miniopera called A Bridge Between People. Its plot revolved around children bringing together angry adults by building tiny suspension bridges between them.
Abrahams ended the night by expressing his hope that everyone could be together in person next year, and by delivering his traditional signoff: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize tonight—and especially if you did—better luck next year.”