Monday, May 31, 2021

Will our American democracy collapse?

An apocalyptic opinion piece by Krugman induces me to ruminations of the sort I’ve been inflicting on MindBlog readers in recent posts (see last paragrapht). But first, a few edited clips from Krugman. He notes:
...our two major political parties are very different in their underlying structures. The Democrats are a coalition of interest groups — labor unions, environmentalists, L.G.B.T.Q. activists and more. The Republican Party is the vehicle of a cohesive, monolithic movement. This is often described as an ideological movement, although given the twists and turns of recent years — the sudden embrace of protectionism, the attacks on “woke” corporations (see Edsall's piece “Is Wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats"?) — the ideology of movement conservatism seems less obvious than its will to power.
America’s democratic experiment may well be nearing its end...Republicans might take power legitimately; they might win through pervasive voter suppression; G.O.P. legislators might simply refuse to certify Democratic electoral votes and declare Donald Trump or his political heir the winner. However it plays out, the G.O.P. will try to ensure a permanent lock on power and do all it can to suppress dissent. did we get here?...the predominance of craven careerists is what has made the Republican Party so vulnerable to authoritarian takeover...a great majority of Republicans in Congress know that the election wasn’t stolen. Very few really believe that the storming of the Capitol was a false-flag antifa operation or simply a crowd of harmless tourists. But decades as a monolithic, top-down enterprise have filled the G.O.P. with people who will follow the party line wherever it goes... So if Trump or a Trump-like figure declares that we have always been at war with East Asia, well, his party will say that we’ve always been at war with East Asia. If he says he won a presidential election in a landslide, never mind the facts, they’ll say he won the election in a landslide...The point is that neither megalomania at the top nor rage at the bottom explains why American democracy is hanging by a thread. Cowardice, not craziness, is the reason government by the people may soon perish...

Does the democratic experiment end? Does the U.S. become an autocracy to protect the wealth and well being of financially secure white men like myself?’ My early childhood experiences of being an outsider  watching from the periphery of groups inclines me to view the current  ‘crisis in democracy’ as another installment of the zig-zag that has resonated throughout history: Autocratic order -> inequality and poverty -> revolution -> more equity and equality but democratic chaos -> new privileged class assumes autocratic power-> repeat. If I were to get excited it would be on the side of democracy, but I am uncertain about whether either a democracy or an autocratic government is up to the task of regulating its human herd in our hi-tech future. Yuval Harari repeatedly makes this point in his writings. As I indicated in another recent rumination, I think it likely that our future lies in the hands of an ill-defined oligarchy of international information technology corporations managed by an educated elite.   ('Ill-defined" because it is hard to imagine a  global cabal - some modern version of the paranoid 'Elders of Zion' fantasy - running the show better than the current autocratic regimes that are botching things up.)

Friday, May 28, 2021

The latest on wearable stress-relief

Over its 15 year history MindBlog has done several reviews of widgets currently on the market that are meant to monitor and relieve stress. Chiu has done a review of three current devices you might have a look at if you have $250-$350 to burn. It seems that most users find mild benefits when trying them, but don't feel a strong urge to continue using them. The online reviews offered by vendors are predictability ecstatic (placebo effects anyone?). There is no peer-reviewed research from large-scale clinical trials of their efficacy yet available. 

The Appolo Neuro is a slightly curved rectangular box on a band that can fit around wrist or ankle and issue "soothing vibrations that speak to your nervous system" to increase heart-rate variability during normal activity and sleep... Hmmmmm. The other widgets are used in sessions that are set aside from daily activities. The Sensate 2 looks like a smooth river rock that is placed on your chest during sessions and "combines vibrations, or “sonic frequencies,” synchronized with specially composed soundtracks to enhance relaxation." The Muse 2 is a meditation headband, which has built-in sensors monitor brain waves using “advanced signal processing” to translate brain waves into sounds of weather. 

I tried similar widgets 5-10 years ago. This time, I don't think I'm gonna go there....from Chin's article:  "most people don’t need wearables or technology to effectively manage stress,... Before investing in a device...why not try well-established, free approaches, such as spending time in nature, exercising, practicing mindfulness and cultivating social interactions.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Bias Is a Big Problem. But So Is ‘Noise.’

I have to pass on the strong dose of sanity offered by Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues in a recent NYTimes guest essay. They make some elemental distinctions that are important to keep in mind. Some edited clips:
A bias is any predictable error that inclines your judgment in a particular direction (for instance against women or in favor of Ivy League graduates, or when forecasts of sales are consistently optimistic or investment decisions overly cautious).
There is another type of error that attracts far less attention: noise. While bias is the average of errors, noise is their variability. In a 1981 study, for example, 208 federal judges were asked to determine the appropriate sentences for the same 16 cases...The average difference between the sentences that two randomly chosen judges gave for the same crime was more than 3.5 years. Considering that the mean sentence was seven years, that was a disconcerting amount of noise...In 2015, we conducted a study of underwriters in a large insurance company. Forty-eight underwriters were shown realistic summaries of risks to which they assigned premiums, just as they did in their jobs...the typical difference we found between two underwriters was an astonishing 55 percent of their average premium.
Where does noise come from? ...irrelevant circumstances can affect judgments...a judge’s mood, fatigue and even the weather can all have modest but detectable effects on judicial decisions. Another source is general tendencies...There are “hanging” judges and lenient ones...a third source is different patterns of assessment (say, which types of cases they believe merit being harsh or lenient about). Underwriters differ in their views of what is risky, and doctors in their views of which ailments require treatment. We celebrate the uniqueness of individuals, but we tend to forget that, when we expect consistency, uniqueness becomes a liability.
Once you become aware of noise, you can look for ways to reduce it. For instance, independent judgments from a number of people can be averaged (a frequent practice in forecasting). Guidelines, such as those often used in medicine, can help professionals reach better and more uniform decisions. As studies of hiring practices have consistently shown, imposing structure and discipline in interviews and other forms of assessment tends to improve judgments of job candidates.
No noise-reduction techniques will be deployed, however, if we do not first recognize the existence of noise. Noise is too often neglected. But it is a serious issue that results in frequent error and rampant injustice. Organizations and institutions, public and private, will make better decisions if they take noise seriously.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Darwin’s insights: How the evolutionary perspective has come to permeate the social sciences.

I want to pass on a review article on human evolution by Richerson1,Gavrilets, and de Waal (open source) in a recent issue of Science Magazine. Here is the Editor's summary: 

150 years of The Descent of Man

Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. have reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin's work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Can You Have More Than 150 Friends?

MindBlog has done more than 9 posts over the past 15 years (enter Dunbar in the search box in the left column of this web page) pointing to Robin Dunbar's work showing that for a large number of animal species brain size and social group size get larger together, with his curve predicting that the optimal group size for humans is about 150. The staus of this widely accepted number has been challenged by Lind and collaborators, whose article suggests that the number could be much higher. Here is their abstract and a few clips from their discussion:
A widespread and popular belief posits that humans possess a cognitive capacity that is limited to keeping track of and maintaining stable relationships with approximately 150 people. This influential number, ‘Dunbar's number’, originates from an extrapolation of a regression line describing the relationship between relative neocortex size and group size in primates. Here, we test if there is statistical support for this idea. Our analyses on complementary datasets using different methods yield wildly different numbers. Bayesian and generalized least-squares phylogenetic methods generate approximations of average group sizes between 69–109 and 16–42, respectively. However, enormous 95% confidence intervals (4–520 and 2–336, respectively) imply that specifying any one number is futile. A cognitive limit on human group size cannot be derived in this manner.
Ruiter et al. make the point that
Dunbar's assumption that the evolution of human brain physiology corresponds with a limit in our capacity to maintain relationships ignores the cultural mechanisms, practices, and social structures that humans develop to counter potential deficiencies...Human information process management, we argue, cannot be understood as a simple product of brain physiology. Cross-cultural comparison of not only group size but also relationship-reckoning systems like kinship terminologies suggests that although neocortices are undoubtedly crucial to human behavior, they cannot be given such primacy in explaining complex group composition, formation, or management.
An article by Jenny Gross quotes Dunbar's responses to the above.
The new analysis, he said, “is bonkers, absolutely bonkers,” adding that the Stockholm University researchers conducted a flawed statistical analysis and misunderstood both the nuances of his analyses and of human connections. “I marvel at their apparent failure to understand relationships.”
Dr. Dunbar defines meaningful relationships as those people you know well enough to greet without feeling awkward if you ran into them in an airport lounge. That number typically ranges from 100 to 250, with the average around 150...Around 6000 B.C., the size of Neolithic villages from the Middle East was 120 to 150 people, judging by the number of dwellings. In 1086, the average size of most English villages recorded in the Domesday Book was 160 people. In modern armies, fighting units contain an average of 130 to 150 people, he said...Dr. Dunbar contended that his theory is still viable, even in today’s hyper-connected world, since the quality of connections on social networks is often low. “These are not personalized relationships,” he said...“It’s fairly blatantly obvious to most people when they sit down and think about it that that’s how their social network is organized,” he said. Dunbar’s number, he said, is not going anywhere.

Monday, May 24, 2021

For consciousness theory mavens: an argument against Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory.

Behavioral and Brain Science invites commentary on a forthcoming article by Merker et al. Here is the abstract:
Giulio Tononi's Integrated Information Theory (IIT) proposes explaining consciousness by directly identifying it with integrated information. We examine the construct validity of IIT's measure of consciousness, phi (Φ), by analyzing its formal properties, its relation to key aspects of consciousness, and its co-variation with relevant empirical circumstances. Our analysis shows that IIT's identification of consciousness with the causal efficacy with which differentiated networks accomplish global information transfer (which is what Φ in fact measures) is mistaken. This misidentification has the consequence of requiring the attribution of consciousness to a range of natural systems and artifacts that include, but are not limited to, large-scale electrical power grids, gene-regulation networks, some electronic circuit boards, and social networks. Instead of treating this consequence of the theory as a disconfirmation, IIT embraces it. By regarding these systems as bearers of consciousness ex hypothesi, IIT is led towards the orbit of panpsychist ideation. This departure from science as we know it can be avoided by recognizing the functional misattribution at the heart of IIT's identity claim. We show, for example, what function is actually performed, at least in the human case, by the cortical combination of differentiation with integration that IIT identifies with consciousness. Finally, we examine what lessons may be drawn from IIT's failure to provide a credible account of consciousness for progress in the very active field of research concerned with exploring the phenomenon from formal and neural points of view.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

I owe my soul to the company store (Google).

As I pass through my 79th birthday I offer a cathartic rant - without worrying about whether its parts cohere:

I am the white collar equivalent of the coal miner in Tennessee Ernie Fords classic “16 Tons” lyric line that provides the title of this post.... except that I am shoveling information in bytes rather than shoveling coal. The tendrils of google extend into all my internet activities, it is a virtual prosthesis. I am symbiotic with the cloud, losing access to it is like losing the use of my limbs. Yuval Harari has it exactly right - Google’s A.I. knows more about me than I know about myself... what YouTube movies, programs, and classical piano performances with scrolling scores I want to watch, where I go (my google maps) and what I do (my google calendar). 

Google knows what I think and write from (powered by Google’s Blogger platform), as well from my google cloud drive that holds my important legal and financial documents.  I put my piano performances on my YouTube channel at My techie son’s Google workspace account supporting the domain provides me with a email address and youtube without advertisements. Underground Google fiber was recently installed on my street and suddenly this week I have 1 GB down internet and google drive cloud storage of 1 terabyte for the same amount that I had been paying another fiber optic provider for 300 MB down with no extras.

My only non-Google platform,  (the archive of my lectures, writing, personal and laboratory history), is a historical relic dating back to and now called  'Yahoo Small Business." I tried switching mainly to Apple’s iCloud in early 2020, because it is more protective of privacy, but after a year of trying I have given up and returned to the evil empire. Apple’s web interface for word processing is slow and klutzy, has unnecessary prompts, is crash prone, and too frequently requires relogging into iCloud. 

Governance of me, along with the rest of the human herd, is quietly being transferred from nation states - whose internal conflicts render them ineffective - to an oligarchy of IT companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon, along with their European and Asian counterparts. Tech companies are pretending to be governments, as in the quasi-governmental posturing of Amazon and Facebook . Their cloud based artificial intelligence analyzes and manipulates what we want and sells it to us.

After doing numerous posts on the sociopathy of social media, you might think I would practice what I preach and abstain from having a facebook and twitter account. But no, I maintain both accounts (Deric Bownds and @DericBownds)  to re-broadcast the posts I compose on the Blogger platform that masquerades as coming from I don’t look at tweets or re-tweets on my twitter account, but I do check facebook for news of my family and two facebook social groups. 

I am continually amazed by my occasional looks down the rabbit hole of social media (See How Roblox Sparked a Chaotic Music Scene)  Realizing that this is the generation that contains our future leaders reminds me of Willian Butler Yeats' poem “The Second Coming” in which he seems to have seen it long ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

What's not to enjoy?  Sit back and read Niall Ferguson on "The Politics of Catastrophe" as our humanity slowly and surely chaotically merges with the great A.I. in the cloud!

Friday, May 21, 2021

Educational attainment does not influence brain aging much for my smugness over knowing that educational attainment slows brain aging. Nyberg et al. (open souce) show that it ain't so. Check out the link for some nice graphic of their data:
Education has been related to various advantageous lifetime outcomes. Here, using longitudinal structural MRI data (4,422 observations), we tested the influential hypothesis that higher education translates into slower rates of brain aging. Cross-sectionally, education was modestly associated with regional cortical volume. However, despite marked mean atrophy in the cortex and hippocampus, education did not influence rates of change. The results were replicated across two independent samples. Our findings challenge the view that higher education slows brain aging.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The curiosity circuits of our brains.

Every morning, as I am passing through the waking, exercise, and breakfast rituals that finally deliver me to my 'professor is in' office - a converted front bedroom of our house - I marvel at parallel ritualistic behaviors in my two abyssinian 1 year old cats, driven by an almost manic curiosity that impells them to seek new objects, crannies and nooks that hey can explore, occasionally hitting the jackpot of finding a cockroach, or a new object that they can break or brush onto the floor. Curiosity is one of the most important innate drives that they or I posses, and many think it should elevated to join the list of the four F's we teach first year Medical Students (fighting, feeding, fleeing, and fornicating). As Farahbakhsh and Siciliano note in their perspectives article on the work of Ahmadlout et al., "Attraction to the unknown, or curiosity, is a prerequisite for higher-order knowledge. Innate attraction to novelty is thought to be an evolutionary prerequisite for complex learning and guides organisms toward acquisition of adaptive behavioral repertoires."

Ahmadlou et al. have found circuitry in the mouse brain that is necessary for the exploration of new objects and conspecifics. A specific population of genetically identified γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA)—ergic neurons in a brain region called the zona incerta receive excitatory input in the form of novelty and/or arousal information from the prelimbic cortex, and these neurons send inhibitory projections to the periaqueductal gray region. Here is a summary graphic from the perspectives article (click to enlarge):


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Liberal fact-master nerds go down the rabbit hole of a social media conspiracy.

I pass on this clip from the Morning Dispatch sent by a friend. Check out the link to the NYTimes article it refers to. Ben Smith describes how hundreds of “Jeopardy!” contestants talked themselves into a baseless conspiracy theory — and won’t be talked out of it.
It’s tempting to believe that conspiratorial, tin-hat thinking is something only other people are susceptible to—especially people less educated and more credulous than we imagine ourselves to be. Which is why this piece from the New York Times’s Ben Smith is so fascinating in its depiction of a moral panic that descended on a small online community of former winners of the quiz show Jeopardy! after a contestant who had just won his third game held up three fingers on his right hand—a gesture which, the contestants quickly decided, was likely some sort of white power symbol. “The element of this story that interests me most is how the beating heart of nerdy, liberal fact-mastery can pump blood into wild social media conspiracy, and send all these smart people down the sort of rabbit hole that leads other groups of Americans to believe that children are being transported inside refrigerators,” Smith wrote. “It reflects a depth of alienation among Americans, in which our warring tribes squint through the fog at one another for mysterious and abstruse signs of malice.”

Monday, May 17, 2021

How both tribes are missing the mark

Continuing in the thread of last Monday's post, I can't resist passing on three articles that absolutely nail the current dilemma in the U.S. and Western Europe over finding a middle way between the extremes of reactionary progressivism and conservatism. Here is a clip from Andrew Sullivan, that includes reference to a must read article by Tony Blair. His point is that the current GOP is missing an opportunity to capitalize on the following opportunity:
Everywhere in the West, this is now the winning electoral formula: left on economics, right on culture. By “left on economics”, I mean a recognition that market capitalism has been too successful for its and our own good, and that spreading the wealth to more people is needed both for social stability and to rescue capitalism from itself. And by “right on culture”, I do not mean some kind of revived Christianism. I mean affirming a critical but undeniable love of country and its flawed but inspiring history, reforming rather than defunding the police, enforcing the nation’s borders with firmness and compassion, embracing color-blind policies on race, and viewing our common humanity and citizenship as deeper principles than the modern left’s and radical right’s obsession with group identity.
Get that balance right, and the future is yours. In a must-read essay in Britain’s New Statesman, Tony Blair spells out how the progressive left is still misreading the public mood, allowing a cannier, less rigid right to entrench power. Money quote: “‘Defund the police’ may be the left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ … It leaves the right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values.” Some key principles Blair lays out:
People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday … People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.
The third article I point to is an add-on to the above. Brooks' piece suggests that the wokeness, social justice, or critical race theory of the left is likely to be co-opted by the meritocratic elite of corporations and other establishment organizations. "In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now."

Friday, May 14, 2021

Two promising post-traumatic stress disorder treatments

I want to pass on references to two new approaches to relieving the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Nuwer describes a new study showing that MDMA (known as the party drug Ecstasy, or Molly) can bring relief to PTSD when used in conjunction with talk therapy. Ressler et al. address the problem that human patients cannot be directly re-exposed to trauma-cues of the sort that have been used in animal studies to induce and then disrupt reconsolidation of traumatic memories. They devise a procedure for covertly capturing and attenuating a hippocampu-dependent fear memory in male rats, a procedure that might prove to be useful in human therapy. Here is their abstract:
Reconsolidation may be a viable therapeutic target to inhibit pathological fear memories. In the clinic, incidental or imaginal reminders are used for safe retrieval of traumatic memories of experiences that occurred elsewhere. However, it is unknown whether indirectly retrieved traumatic memories are sensitive to disruption. Here we used a backward (BW) conditioning procedure to indirectly retrieve and manipulate a hippocampus (HPC)-dependent contextual fear engram in male rats. We show that conditioned freezing to a BW conditioned stimulus (CS) is mediated by fear to the conditioning context, activates HPC ensembles that can be covertly captured and chemogenetically activated to drive fear, and is impaired by post-retrieval protein synthesis inhibition. These results reveal that indirectly retrieved contextual fear memories reactivate HPC ensembles and undergo protein synthesis-dependent reconsolidation. Clinical interventions that rely on indirect retrieval of traumatic memories, such as imaginal exposure, may open a window for editing or erasure of neural representations that drive pathological fear.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Social isolation makes us stupid.

The summary of an open source article from Ingram et al. in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology:
Studies examining the effect of social isolation on cognitive function typically involve older adults and/or specialist groups (e.g., expeditions). We considered the effects of COVID‐19‐induced social isolation on cognitive function within a representative sample of the general population. We additionally considered how participants ‘shielding’ due to underlying health complications, or living alone, performed. We predicted that performance would be poorest under strictest, most‐isolating conditions. At five timepoints over 13 weeks, participants (N = 342; aged 18–72 years) completed online tasks measuring attention, memory, decision‐making, time‐estimation, and learning. Participants indicated their mood as ‘lockdown’ was eased. Performance typically improved as opportunities for social contact increased. Interactions between participant sub‐groups and timepoint demonstrated that performance was shaped by individuals' social isolation levels. Social isolation is linked to cognitive decline in the absence of ageing covariates. The impact of social isolation on cognitive function should be considered when implementing prolonged pandemic‐related restrictive conditions.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Tribe trumps truth.

I've been trying to cut down on the number of posts on politics, but with the republican party now requiring a loyalty test that is the modern equivalent the firewalking rituals of Polynesia, Spain, and Greece I want to pass on a few articles relevant to their transition into a white anglo-saxon tribe that seeks to establish an autocratic regime that will preserve their minority ruling status. First, Brooks notes that
...Since the election, large swaths of the Trumpian right have decided America is facing a crisis like never before and they are the small army of warriors fighting with Alamo-level desperation to ensure the survival of the country as they conceive it...When asked in late January if politics is more about “enacting good public policy” or “ensuring the survival of the country as we know it,” 51 percent of Trump Republicans said survival; only 19 percent said policy...The level of Republican pessimism is off the charts. A February Economist-YouGov poll asked Americans which statement is closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.”...Over 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”
Douthat describes the two crises of conservatism:
The normal crisis is a party crisis, the sort that afflicts all political coalitions. The Republican Party 40 years ago coalesced around a set of appeals that enabled its leaders to win large presidential majorities and set the national agenda. At a certain point the issue landscape changed, so did the country’s demographics, and the G.O.P. has struggled to adapt — cycling through compassionate conservatism, Tea Party conservatism and Trumpist populism without reproducing Ronald Reagan’s success.
But beneath this party crisis there is the deeper one, having to do with what conservatism under a liberal order exists to actually conserve...One powerful answer is that conservatism-under-liberalism should defend human goods that are threatened by liberal ideas taken to extremes. The family, when liberal freedom becomes a corrosive hyper-individualism. Traditional religion, when liberal toleration becomes a militant and superstitious secularism. Local community and local knowledge, against expert certainty and bureaucratic centralization. Artistic and intellectual greatness, when democratic taste turns philistine or liberal intellectuals become apparatchiks. The individual talent of the entrepreneur or businessman, against the leveling impulses of egalitarianism and the stultifying power of monopoly...
What does it mean to conserve the family in an era when not just the two-parent household but childbearing and sex itself are in eclipse? What does it mean to defend traditional religion in a country where institutional faith is either bunkered or rapidly declining? How do you defend localism when the internet seems to nationalize every political and cultural debate? What does the conservation of the West’s humanistic traditions mean when pop repetition rules the culture, and the great universities are increasingly hostile to even the Democratic-voting sort of cultural conservative?
A further Douthat piece suggests that it is capitalism itself that is killing conservatism:
...the social trends American conservatives most dislike, the rise of expressive individualism and the decline of religion, marriage and the family, are driven by socioeconomic forces the right’s free-market doctrines actively encourage. “America’s moral traditionalists are wedded to an economic system that is radically anti-traditional,” he writes, and “Republicans can neither wage war on capitalism nor make peace with its social implications.”’s not that capitalist dynamism inevitably dissolves conservative habits. It’s more that the wealth this dynamism piles up, the liberty it enables and the technological distractions it invents, let people live more individualistically — at first happily, with time perhaps less so — in ways that eventually undermine conservatism and dynamism together. At which point the peril isn’t markets red in tooth and claw, but a capitalist endgame that resembles Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” with a rich and technologically proficient world turning sterile and dystopian.
...let’s not let liberals off the hook. If capitalist churn isn’t what it used to be, if taming its excesses in the style of France or Sweden isn’t enough to restore family and community, if the combination of welfare-state liberalism and personal emancipation trends toward a Huxleyan dystopia, do liberals have any resources besides complaints about capitalism that might help pull us off that course?...Because if conservatism’s responses are incoherent and insufficient, I fear that liberalism has no response at all.

Friday, May 07, 2021

Structural Whitening

I pass on this summary by Rai of a study by Anicich et al. in J. Exp. Soc. Psychol:
As the US population becomes more racially diverse, it is unclear how ethnic white populations will respond to these demographic changes. Anicich et al. found experimentally that when white Americans were given the opportunity to populate fictional cities, they imposed greater racial segregation in areas that they frequented more often, such as work or school, because they feel greater anxiety around non-whites. In a follow-up study, the authors examined policies at tennis and golf clubs across the United States, and found that in areas with higher racial diversity, clubs engaged in more exclusionary behavior, such as enacting strict dress codes. These findings suggest that as racial diversity increases, white Americans may respond by trying to structure their environment in more segregated ways.
And here is the abstract of the article:
The current research explores how local racial diversity affects Whites' efforts to structure their local communities to avoid incidental intergroup contact. In two experimental studies (N = 509; Studies 1a-b), we consider Whites' choices to structure a fictional, diverse city and find that Whites choose greater racial segregation around more (vs. less) self-relevant landmarks (e.g., their workplace and children's school). Specifically, the more time they expect to spend at a landmark, the more they concentrate other Whites around that landmark, thereby reducing opportunities for incidental intergroup contact. Whites also structure environments to reduce incidental intergroup contact by instituting organizational policies that disproportionately exclude non-Whites: Two large-scale archival studies (Studies 2a-b) using data from every U.S. tennis (N = 15,023) and golf (N = 10,949) facility revealed that facilities in more racially diverse communities maintain more exclusionary barriers (e.g., guest policies, monetary fees, dress codes) that shield the patrons of these historically White institutions from incidental intergroup contact. In a final experiment (N = 307; Study 3), we find that Whites' anticipated intergroup anxiety is one driver of their choices to structure environments to reduce incidental intergroup contact in more (vs. less) racially diverse communities. Our results suggest that despite increasing racial diversity, White Americans structure local environments to fuel a self-perpetuating cycle of segregation.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Evidence that monkeys have conscious awareness of self - they know what they saw.

Ben-Haim et al. Disentangle perceptual awareness from nonconscious processing in rhesus monkeys  


Many animals perform complex intelligent behaviors, but the question of whether animals are aware while doing so remains a long debated but unanswered question. Here, we develop a new approach to assess whether nonhuman animals have awareness by utilizing a well-known double dissociation of visual awareness—cases in which people behave in completely opposite ways when stimuli are processed consciously versus nonconsciously. Using this method, we found that a nonhuman species—the rhesus monkey—exhibits the very same behavioral signature of both nonconscious and conscious processing. This opposite double dissociation of awareness firstly allows stripping away the long inherent ambiguity when interpreting the processes governing animal behavior. Collectively, it provides robust support for two distinct awareness modes in nonhuman animals.
Scholars have long debated whether animals, which display impressive intelligent behaviors, are consciously aware or not. Yet, because many complex human behaviors and high-level functions can be performed without conscious awareness, it was long considered impossible to untangle whether animals are aware or just conditionally or nonconsciously behaving. Here, we developed an empirical approach to address this question. We harnessed a well-established cross-over double dissociation between nonconscious and conscious processing, in which people perform in completely opposite ways when they are aware of stimuli versus when they are not. To date, no one has explored if similar performance dissociations exist in a nonhuman species. In a series of seven experiments, we first established these signatures in humans using both known and newly developed nonverbal double-dissociation tasks and then identified similar signatures in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). These results provide robust evidence for two distinct modes of processing in nonhuman primates. This empirical approach makes it feasible to disentangle conscious visual awareness from nonconscious processing in nonhuman species; hence, it can be used to strip away ambiguity when exploring the processes governing intelligent behavior across the animal kingdom. Taken together, these results strongly support the existence of both nonconscious processing as well as functional human-like visual awareness in nonhuman animals.
(Note: Establishing double dissociation of awareness used a nonverbal spatial-cueing paradigm. Motivated readers can email me to obtain a PDF of the article which describes this paradigm.)

Monday, May 03, 2021

People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years

From Ellis et al.


The current biodiversity crisis is often depicted as a struggle to preserve untouched habitats. Here, we combine global maps of human populations and land use over the past 12,000 y with current biodiversity data to show that nearly three quarters of terrestrial nature has long been shaped by diverse histories of human habitation and use by Indigenous and traditional peoples. With rare exceptions, current biodiversity losses are caused not by human conversion or degradation of untouched ecosystems, but rather by the appropriation, colonization, and intensification of use in lands inhabited and used by prior societies. Global land use history confirms that empowering the environmental stewardship of Indigenous peoples and local communities will be critical to conserving biodiversity across the planet.
Archaeological and paleoecological evidence shows that by 10,000 BCE, all human societies employed varying degrees of ecologically transformative land use practices, including burning, hunting, species propagation, domestication, cultivation, and others that have left long-term legacies across the terrestrial biosphere. Yet, a lingering paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers is that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive. Here, we use the most up-to-date, spatially explicit global reconstruction of historical human populations and land use to show that this paradigm is likely wrong. Even 12,000 y ago, nearly three quarters of Earth’s land was inhabited and therefore shaped by human societies, including more than 95% of temperate and 90% of tropical woodlands. Lands now characterized as “natural,” “intact,” and “wild” generally exhibit long histories of use, as do protected areas and Indigenous lands, and current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are more strongly associated with past patterns of land use than with present ones in regional landscapes now characterized as natural. The current biodiversity crisis can seldom be explained by the loss of uninhabited wildlands, resulting instead from the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of the biodiverse cultural landscapes long shaped and sustained by prior societies. Recognizing this deep cultural connection with biodiversity will therefore be essential to resolve the crisis.
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