Thursday, May 28, 2009

On Being Certain, and what Dawkins thinks he knows.

"On Being Certain" by Robert A Burton is a book I wish more people would read. So much of the so-called debate in the country is people who are certain they are right shouting at each other and trading ad hominem attacks. Burton goes in depth to pick apart the inner workings of that feeling of certainty we are all prone to and exposes it for what it really is. It's a sensation which arises from unconscious mental processes, processes which are invisible to our conscious mind. We may know we feel certain, but we mostly don't have a clue as to why. And even if we know some of the reasons why, we have no way of knowing if we have the whole picture or not. So humans should let go of their habit of considering their feeling of certainty to be evidence of correctness.

There's a lot more to say about this book, and I'd like to come back to the subject in another post, but right now I wanted to point out a small error in the book. In a section criticizing a number of people in the public sphere for an excess of certainty, he talks about a quote from Richard Dawkins:

"They say to me, how can you bear to be alive if everything is so cold and empty and pointless? Well, at an academic level I think it is - but that doesn't mean you can live your life like that. One answer is that I feel privileged to be allowed to understand why the world exists, and why I exist, and I want to share it with other people."

This quote is from an article about Dawkins published in The Guardian, available here. I don't know what material the quote is excerpted from. Burton has a number of things to say about this, the one I particularly take issue with is this:

"Dawkins ... believes ... that he is mentally capable of understanding why the world and we exist"

I can understand the criticism of one is only working from that quote. I read the Dawkins quote, and, on the face of it, it sounds like he is claiming a pretty amazing piece of knowledge. However, if one assumes that he is using why as in why there is something rather than nothing, then it really doesn't sound like anything the Dawkins I am familiar with would say. In searching the web for thecontext of the quote, I came across an interview with Dawkins on which is very relevant, because in it he explains what he means when he uses the word "why" in a statement like that.

Q: What about the old adage that science deals with the "how" questions and religion deals with the "why" questions?

Dawkins: I think that's remarkably stupid, if I may say so. What on earth is a "why" question? There are "why" questions that mean something in a Darwinian world. We say, why do birds have wings? To fly with. And that's a Darwinian translation of the evolutionary process whereby the birds that had wings survived better than the birds without. They don't mean that, though. They mean "why" in a deliberate, purposeful sense. So when you say religion deals with "why" questions, that begs the entire question that we're arguing about. Those of us who don't believe in religion -- supernatural religion -- would say there is no such thing as a "why" question in that sense. Now, the mere fact that you can frame an English sentence beginning with the word "why" does not mean that English sentence should receive an answer. I could say, why are unicorns hollow? That appears to mean something, but it doesn't deserve an answer.

This cuts right to the heart of the misunderstanding between Burton and Dawkins. When Dawkins uses the word "why" he means the kinds of why that we can know, not the metaphysical why. I pointed this out to Burton in a correspondence via his web site. Burton graciously acknowledged his misunderstanding. He communicated back:

OOOOPs--- you are right about Dawkins' use of why-- I had actually read that Salon interview but didn't catch his distinction. I think I was bothered by his condescending dismissal of the less enlightened and overread his use of 'why.' a perfect example of being hoisted on one's own petard.

Burton certainly practices what he preaches about keeping an open mind and accepting new information. Dawkins can seem a bit condescending; I can see that as a fair criticism. Dawkins expects a lot out of people, maybe too much. I'm a bit on the fence on the rest of Burton's criticism of Dawkins. While I find Burton's breakdown of the process of being certain of great use in tempering views and opinions, I don't feel that Dawkins goes too far.

I find Dawkins' sort of certainty useful in the world. Burton talks about how the pleasant feeling of certainty serves a useful function in our mental processes. Without it we would not know when to stop trying to solve the problem. A measured amount of certainty in the public debate is necessary to just get the ideas out there and in the mix. I don't feel Dawkins oversteps what is necessary for the public debate, but then I tend to agree with Dawkins' point of view.

One of the reasons I don't find Dawkins' style of certainty objectionable is that it centers around ideas worked out over a long scientific career filled with debate and a constant stream of new data. Dawkins has stated many times that he holds in the highest regard the ability to admit one is wrong. Dawkins is sharp minded and has thought through a lot of hard problems in his life, but if one could present him with compelling evidence that he is wrong one some point, he would be glad to admit it and thank you for the correction.

Dawkins recounts in The God Delusion what he considers one of the most influential moments in his budding scientific career:

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said - with passion - 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.' We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal - unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

I'm willing to accept a bit of certainty from a man who gets a lump in his throat over that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Strength is Weakness, John McCain, Hillary Clinton

I was reading Frans de Waal's 2005 book "Our Inner Ape" last fall during the political season. I guess de Waal had been observing some of the previous election seasons with the eyes of a primatologist when he was working on the book and he made an interesting observation about John McCain's behavior at the 2000 Republican convention.

In the book, de Waal presents a lot of observations about chimpanzee society. He combines observations made in the wild and the more detailed observations possible in captivity. Chimpanzee society is a male dominated society. The alpha male rules, but there's a lot more going on that just that. There are various alliances running through both the males and the females, and there is a lot of political maneuvering to establish the hierarchy. de Waal describes in great detail one particular chimpanzee power struggle which took place at the Arnhem Zoo in Holland, where it could be observed in minute detail. The alpha male at one point was the strongest chimp, Luit. Though he was strongest, he fell to a coalition between a younger contender, Nikkie, supported by an older well respected male, Yeroen. de Waal uses the dynamics of the situation to illustrate a somewhat counter-intuitive principle in politics: Strength is Weakness.
When the very powerful Luit was alpha, Yeroen had some respect, but Luit did not need Yeroen's support to be alpha. But by backing the weaker contender for alpha, Nikkie, Yeroen was making a shrewd political maneuver. Sure enough, after Luit was overthrown (actually killed) and Nikkie was the new alpha, Nikkie's tenuous hold on the position of alpha meant that Yeroen's support was essential resulting in Yeroen getting a lot more sex than your usual chimpanzee second in command.

de Waal is an astute observer and he connects this with coalition theory. He recounts how he was once invited to a think tank in Washington, D.C. along with people from diverse disciplines: policy makers, anthropologists, psychologist, military, political scientists, de Waal being the only primatologist. This was after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the folks in D.C. were brainstorming what to do now that the USA was the obvious alpha country. Only de Waal and one of the political scientists spoke out against the idea that the USA now had free rein to do what it pleased. The political scientist based his objection on military history rather than animal behavior, but the insight was similar to de Waal's. I remember that period of triumphalism well. People postulating what we were going to do with the huge "peace dividend" now that the Soviet Union was no longer a threat. Strength is weakness. Being the most powerful nation on the block made us one of the least attractive coalition partners (aside from the UK and the "special relationship"). The right thing to do according to coalition theory would be to hunker down so as not to stand out, de-emphasize our power and get shoulder to shoulder with the other players to make being in coalition with us attractive. He describes the I-told-you-so moment of seeing the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Russia proclaiming together their opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. Being the leader by merely being the strongest is not the most secure position, it's better to have strength through coalition.

But, back onto the thread leading to McCain. There can be a lot of conflict in the male dominated chimp society and the conflict can be very dangerous; chimps are powerful animals. After the fall of Luit and the rise of the Nikkie-Yeroen coalition, de Waal says:

Infighting among coalition partners is so threatening that they desperately try to reconcile, especially the one who stands to lose the most, which often is the one at the top. Yeroen and Nikkie were always in a a hurry to make up after a fight: they needed to present a united front. One moment they'd be running around screaming at each other, usually in competition over a female, and the next they'd fling their arms around each other and make up with a kiss. They signaled to everyone else that they intended to stay in power. The day they failed to reconcile was the day both of them dropped in rank.

de Waal points out how the same dynamic is at work in human politics. After one candidate has won the primary, the other usually rushes to endorse him. He cites John McCain endorsing George W Bush at the 2000 Republican Convention. From a article about the event:

"I endorse Governor Bush," McCain said without smiling. He took an actor's beat with Bush hanging above his shoulder, peering out at the crowd of press like a puppy eager for a pat. "I endorse Governor Bush." Beat. "I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush I endorse Governor Bush."

By now McCain was bent in half, smiling so broadly there was no mistaking his meaning. If you need me to, that smile said.

"And I enthusiastically accept," Bush said.

If they ever touched each other, it was only because Bush was trying to get into McCain's lap.

An interesting observation by de Waal, but you may have noticed the name Hillary Clinton up in the title of this post as well. To get to that, we have to talk about the bonobos. Bonobos have gotten a fair amount of press in recent years, but a quick summary of the distinction. The chimpanzees we've been talking about up to now have all been the species Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee. There is another species in the genus Pan: Pan paniscus or the bonobo. A lot of the press they've gotten has been due to their sexual behavior, they have lots of it, all the time. But as interesting as that might be, what I'm interested in at the moment is their social structure. Groups of wild bonobos are dominated by the females, and using that word dominated might make one picture chimp society with the females in charge, but bonobo society is very different from chimp society. They form larger groups. There is more teamwork. There is much, much less fighting. There is sort of an alpha male, but his position is not obtained by fighting for it, he is the son of the alpha female. Bonobo females attain the alpha position much later in life than a male chimp would. A female earns her place by cooperating with the troop over a long life. An alpha female falls from power when she either dies or her faculties wane to a point where she can no longer fill the position. When a new alpha female is to be chosen, dominance struggles are far less common than in chimps, and whatever struggle there is is only between a few of the older females who have paid enough dues. The rest of the gals sit by and wait for the old gals to work it out. It's not a question of physical prowess, the younger bonobos are much stronger than the old gals in line for the alpha spot. Female bonobos wait their turn for the leadership position, and the rest of the females accept the females who have paid their dues.

Humans are not chimps and not bonobos, but we are equally related to both, and together they are our closest cousins. There are observations one can make about both chimp and bonobo societies which apply to human nature. We share bits of commonality with each, and maybe have a few tricks our our own. We can learn a lot about ourselves studying the similarities and differences we have with our closest cousins.

All of that brings us back to the aftermath of the 2008 Democratic primaries which was fresh in my mind when reading de Waal's book. Instead of the 2000 Republican scenario, with the loser repetitively acknowledging the new alpha Republican with a chimp-like grimace on his face, we have Hillary Clinton's icy shoulder in Barack Obama's direction for a painful period of time. Granted, the election was close, and there was a lack of clarity over a number of issues related to the delegate counts. In fact, if Edwards had come clean about his affair before the primaries started, there's a good chance Hillary would have won more delegates. In the world of male chimp politics, it was obvious that the upstart young Obama had pulled off an upset and the momentum was obviously now on his side. Meanwhile, over in the world of female bonobo politics, Hillary had paid her dues and it was her turn. The uncomfortable stretch before Clinton finally conceded to Obama seems to me less about the reconciliation of two political candidates and more about the reconciliation of two different views of the political process.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mischel's Marshmallows

Jonah Lehrer, in "How We Decide" writes about the famous Mischel Marshmallow experiment. There is also an entertaining presentation about it on RadioLab.
Lehrer recently published an article in the New Yorker going into much more depth about the subject and the people involved.

This is some psych research done at Stanford by Walter Mischel in the late 60's or early 70's which was set up as a test of the self-control of four-year-olds. Take a four-year-old into a fairly boring room, sit the kid at a table. Put a marshmallow (or other treat) in front of the kid and give them a choice. The adult researcher is going to leave them alone in the room. They can eat the treat whenever they want, but if they can wait until the researcher gets back, they get a second treat in addition to the first. Of course the kids varied in their ability to wait. Some ate the thing right away, about thirty percent held out for fifteen minutes and got the second treat. The really interesting part is the follow up. Mischel hadn't initially planned to followup, but the kids were in the Stanford area and many of them went to school with his kids. He noticed a pattern which caused him to follow up the research when the kids were all teenagers. The results were quite interesting, among other things:

The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

He kept following them into adulthood and found things such as:

... low-delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs ....

How long you can wait for a marshmallow at four is a useful predictor of your SAT score and your adult body-mass index. A simple test ends up having less than simple ramifications.

“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Of course, one has to keep in mind that this is all statistical tendencies over the hundreds of kids who took the test. This is not some inevitable destiny. The had examples of being able to teach some of the kids various strategies for getting the second marshmallow, such as imagining a frame around to marshmallow and pretending it's a picture. The main key seems to be an ability to move ones mental focus from a "hot" stimulus, like a tempting marshmallow, to something else. They didn't set up the study to compare the kids who were taught strategies with ones who weren't, but it's encouraging to note that some kids were able to turn it around themselves somehow:

Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. “This is the group I’m most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.”

The New Yorker article goes on about some of the current research on the subject to see if the ability to delay gratification can be taught.

One really useful addition to the New Yorker article is Jonah Lehrer answering reader questions about the article.

In one of the answers, he makes a statement which would be so nice to hear from other popular writers:

These statistical correlations can’t be reliably applied to the individual.

For example, I've heard Malcolm Gladwell speak of such statistical correlations as if they were inevitable. In this RadioLab, Gladwell refers to this research by Ap Dijksterhuis where people primed with the idea of "professors" performed statistcally better at Trivial Pursuit questions than people primed with the idea of "soccer hooligans". When Gladwell mentions it in the RadioLab, rather than showing Lehrer's restraint, he says that if you're primed with the hooligans "you basically lose". Gladwell is a really good writer, but he's a bit reckless with his data. (Robert A. Burton in his book "On Being Certain" also takes Gladwell to task, with good cause.)

I find Jonah Lehrer a welcome voice popularizing psychology and neuroscience. He shows respect for the subject.

One of the bits of the New Yorker article I would like to hear more about is Mischel's attitudes toward personality science back in the 1950's and 60's.

Mischel noticed that academic theories had limited application, and he was struck by the futility of most personality science. He still flinches at the naïveté of graduate students who based their diagnoses on a battery of meaningless tests.

He was hired to try to evaluate the personalities of Peace Corps applicants and:

Volunteers were tested for standard personality traits, and Mischel compared the results with ratings of how well the volunteers performed in the field. He found no correlation; the time-consuming tests predicted nothing. At this point, Mischel realized that the problem wasn’t the tests—it was their premise. Psychologists had spent decades searching for traits that exist independently of circumstance, but what if personality can’t be separated from context?

I guess this really caught my attention, because I've recently had people point me at personality tests like Myers-Briggs and Enneagram. Some times the results of such tests seem to ring true, but mostly in a very similar way to the way horoscopes ring true. I like Mischel's statement that personality can't be separated from context, I think that is a very important point. Static tests just aren't going to capture what your personality or your character, is really like. Behavior is inseparable from situations. People always want to find the one static thing which determines something else, but it is rarely that simple. It's the same way with the perennial nature/nurture debate; it's a false dichotomy. Just because we have two different words for them does not mean that the two can be separated from each other. As Mischel says:

“In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,” he says. “The two influences are completely interrelated.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Now that everyone is tweeting, maybe I'll start blogging.

I'm coming late to the blogging game, but I would like to do some writing to work through some ideas and I figure blogging might help develop the discipline of writing regularly. I bring no heavy credentials to this other than someone who reads and thinks. I am impressed with science as a way of understanding the world. I got interested in biology from the naturalist angle, have even given nature hikes to school children at a nature preserve. When the creationism/intelligent design debates started heating up, I realized my understanding of evolution was somewhat thin. I decided to remedy that to make sure I had enough of a grasp of the subject to explain the major ideas of modern evolutionary theory and intelligently defend evolution against its challengers. Reading has only deepened my interest in the subject, especially ethology.
I had earlier been curious about psychology and had been directed to some Jungian material. There were some interesting metaphors in the Jungian approach, but as a whole, I found it very unsatisfying. It felt much more like religion than science. I finally got a foothold in some modern social psychology and have been connecting a lot of dots together via books based on disciplines from cognitive neuroscience to primatology. It's an exciting time; the level of understanding of the human mind has grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades. If you think psychology means Freud, think again.

For what it's worth, I'll offer a list of some of my favorites of my recent reading, in no particular order, but all recommended.

"Strangers to Ourselves", Timothy Wilson
"Stumbling On Happiness", Daniel Gilbert
"The Happiness Myth", Jennifer Michael Hecht
"Mistakes Were Made", Tavris and Aronson
"On Being Certain", Robert Burton
"How We Decide", Jonah Lehrer
"Proust Was A Neuroscientist", Jonah Lehrer
"Descartes Error", Antonio Damasio
"The Body Has A Mind Of Its Own", Blakeslee and Blakeslee
"A Brief Tour Of Human Consciousness", V.S. Ramachandran
"Our Inner Ape", Frans de Waal