Posts Tagged ‘Science’

The Anthropology of Modern Republicans

January 3, 2014 3 comments

elephant_evolution2_V1Pew Research released its recent polling on acceptance of evolution and the results are depressing. The most talked about demographic result has to be the finding that since 2009 there has been an 11 point plunge in Republicans willing to acknowledge humans evolved over time.


Most of the commentary I’ve read suggests this is a consequence of “motivated reasoning.” In other words, respondents are using belief in evolution as a proxy for “are you a good Republican?” Using poll questions as tribal markers isn’t unique to Republicans. Both parties, for example, are likely to think the economy is doing worse than it actually is when the president is from the other party.

It’s also possible that people that accept science have been leaving the GOP. Or I suppose Republicans might just be getting dumber. Commentators focused on the cause of the decline and if tribalism is truly the reason for it seem to be asking the wrong anthropological question. The mystery is why being a good Republican means you have to be anti-science. Just reflect on that particular tribal characteristic of the GOP. When pollsters ask questions, self-identified Republicans are subconsciously motivated to be more ignorant.

(elephant image)

Trail Mix

October 21, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m off on another hike this weekend. Here’s a hardy blend for your consumption while I’m away.

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

Read more…

The Moral Landscape Released

October 5, 2010 1 comment

I have no trouble admitting I’m a Sam Harris partisan. Everything he does I find I love. So it should be no surprise that I’m excited for his new book released today.

I previously covered some of the debate surrounding his thesis here.

Both The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post published excerpts from The Moral Landscape.

Many people worry that there is something unscientific about making such value judgments. But this split between facts and values is an illusion. Science has always been in the values business. Good science is not the result of scientists abstaining from making value judgments; good science is the result of scientists making their best effort to value principles of reasoning that link their beliefs to reality, through reliable chains of evidence and argument. The very idea of “objective” knowledge (that is, knowledge acquired through careful observation and honest reasoning) has values built into it, as every effort we make to discuss facts depends upon principles that we must first value (e.g. logical consistency, reliance on evidence, parsimony, etc). This is how norms of rational thought are made effective. As far as our understanding of the world is concerned—there are no facts without values.

Just as there is nothing irrational about valuing human health and seeking to understand it (this is the science of medicine), there is nothing irrational about valuing human well-being more generally and seeking to understand it. But whether morality becomes a proper branch of science is not really the point. Is economics a true science yet? Judging from the last few years, it wouldn’t seem so. And perhaps a deep understanding of economics will always elude us. But does anyone doubt that there are better and worse ways to structure an economy? Would any educated person consider it a form of bigotry to criticize another society’s response to a banking crisis? Imagine how terrifying it would be if great numbers of smart people became convinced that all efforts to prevent a global financial catastrophe, being mere products of culture, must be either equally valid or equally nonsensical in principle. And yet this is precisely where most intellectuals stand on the most important questions in human life. (from The Daily Beast)

Imagine that there are only two people living on earth: We can call them “Adam” and “Eve.” Clearly, we can ask how these two people might maximize their well-being. Are there wrong answers to this question? Of course. (Wrong answer #1: They could smash each other in the face with a large rock.) And while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, it seems uncontroversial to say that a man and woman alone on this planet would be better off if they recognized their common interests — like getting food, building shelter and defending themselves against larger predators. If Adam and Eve were industrious enough, they might realize the benefits of creating technology, art, medicine, exploring the world and begetting future generations of humanity. Are there good and bad paths to take across this landscape of possibilities? Of course. In fact, there are, by definition, paths that lead to the worst misery and to the greatest fulfillment possible for these two people — given the structure of their brains, the immediate facts of their environment, and the laws of Nature. The underlying facts here are the facts of physics, chemistry, and biology as they bear on the experience of the only two people in existence.

As I argue in my new book, even if there are a thousand different ways for these two people to thrive, there will be many ways for them not to thrive — and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of human happiness and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion more people to this experiment? (from The Huffington Post)

Kwame Anthony Appiah at The New York Times has a pretty tepid review.

Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.

Also, right as this book hits stores, Sam debates Mark Oppenheimer, NYT columnist, at The Economist over the motion: “This house believes that religion is a force for good.”

I’ll be purchasing my copy tomorrow and hope to share my thoughts with everyone soon. I’m also going to try to see Sam at Tufts and/or Harvard soon. In the meantime go out and buy the book. Harris is an incredibly clear and exciting writer; even if you end up disagreeing you’ll be sure to enjoy the experience.

Confirming Things I Already Knew

September 9, 2010 1 comment

Jonah Lehrer shares with us research that should make most of us happy to hear.

Why Alcohol is Good For You:

Well, the anomaly has just gotten more anomalous: A new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 participants between the ages of 55 and 65. Once again, the researchers found that abstaining from alcohol increases the risk of dying, even when you exclude former alcoholics who have now quit. (The thinking is that ex-drinkers might distort the data, since they’ve already pickled their organs.) While 69 percent of the abstainers died during the 20-year time span of the study, only 41 percent of moderate drinkers passed away. (Moderate drinkers were also 23 percent less likely to die than light drinkers.) But here’s the really weird data point: Heavy drinkers also live longer than abstainers. (Only 61 percent of heavy drinkers died during the study.) In other words, consuming disturbingly large amounts of alcohol seems to be better than drinking none at all.

Sex is Stressful But Good For You:

The takeaway lesson is that sex is both stressful and good for the brain. The “hedonic value” of the experience more than outweighs the temporary surge in corticosterone levels, at least in rats. Although sex appears to get less stressful the more we do it – we pump out fewer stress hormones during the act – such “chronic sex” still promotes all sorts of helpful neural habits, such as increased plasticity and new dendritic spines. (Of course, these findings probably only apply to pleasurable coitus. If you’re not enjoying the act, then don’t expect lots of neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus.) As I note in the article, these findings have led Gould to search for the additional molecules (let’s called them Molecules Y and Z) that modulate and mitigate the usually destructive chemistry of glucocorticoids, at least when we’re engaged in “naturally rewarding” activities. This data wouldn’t surprise Marvin Gaye, who sang so passionately about the benefits of “Sexual Healing”

Don’t worry both pieces are full of the requisite nuance. Of course the only lesson I’m going to take is get drunk and have sex… that’s the message, right?


Categories: Alchohol, Jonah Lehrer, Science, Sex Tags:

One Instance Where Political Correction is More Accurate

I generally despise anything politically correct. Topics concerning race are particularly mushy puddles of P.C./B.S.  They are at once overly talked about and under-analyzed. Same goes for gender. My last post on the topic of innate differences among groups highlighted the hysteria generated controversy of any academic foolish inquisitive enough to research any differences among genders. Well my friend and faithful reader, Dave, sent me a recent Slate article reporting on a study researching, gasp!, racial differences. For example, they argue that black men generally have higher centers of gravity which helps with the physics of locomotion (i.e. running) while whites’ general lower center of gravity helps in swimming. 

To me these are rather trivial, mildly interesting, topics – the reason I’m covering this study is something else entirely. The authors don’t argue that the differences are racial but biological or hereditary. Before you think that they are just being P.C. or nitpicking, read this explanation. First the scientists in science-y language:

Our approach is to study phenotypic (somatotypic) differences … which we consider to have been historically misclassified as racial characteristics. These differences represent consequences of still not well-understood variable environmental stimuli for survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years of habitation. Our study does not advance the notion of race, now recognized as a social construct, as opposed to a biological construct. We acknowledge the wide phenotypic and genotypic diversity among the so-called racial types.

Now the Slate reporter helping translate:

This is a fascinating bit of finesse. There’s nothing unusual about dismissing race as social construct. Racism watchdogs do it all the time. But they do it precisely to deny hereditary differences between blacks and whites.


Taking “race” out of the equation makes a substantive difference: It focuses the conversation about heredity on populations, a more precise and scientifically accepted way of categorizing people. 


The authors also help the conversation by pointing out that “environmental stimuli” caused differential evolution in different parts of the world. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being West African or Eastern European. All of us are evolving all the time. As environmental conditions change in each part of the world, they change the course of natural selection. Ten thousand years from now, the average center of body mass might be higher in Europe than in Africa.

Simply put, it is not about being black or white that causes biological differences. Populations’ genetics blend and change all the time. We lump people into race groups because it’s visually easy, not because it’s a particularly accurate measure of anything. But that doesn’t mean different groups of people can’t have biological differences – but those differences aren’t static and aren’t inherently bad or good. In the future, populations that happen to have darker or lighter skin will have different sets of genes which produce different effects in those individuals. Accepting that genetic differences exist does not condemn anyone to prejudice or racism – it should eradicate it. 

(image from here)

Science: Not A Strength Of The Religious Or Of Science Reporters

Back in 2009 I posted a piece poking fun at scientific versus faith-based thinking analogizing it with the classic Chicken vs. Egg dilemma. 

Science and religion approach humanity’s puzzles differently. Take the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Science answers the egg; religion presupposes chicken.

Now PZ Myers blasts a science reporter at MSNBC (along with the scientist that is “partly responsible”) who claims science has discovered that the chicken came before the egg.

You simply can’t make the conclusion the reporter was making here. The species ancestral to Gallus gallus laid eggs, the last common ancestor of all birds laid eggs, the reptiles that preceded the birds laid eggs…the appearance of egg laying was not coincident with the evolution of ovocleidin. The first chicken that acquired the protein we call ovocleidin now by mutation of a prior protein also hatched from an egg.

(photo from UC Davis

Nietzsche and The Will To Inquire

July 8, 2010 1 comment

Over at the Hannibal Blog an interesting discussion is going on over Nietzsche’s message on the nature of truth. Andreas Kluth sets the stage with a letter from 19 year old Fritz to his sister. 

Nietzsche challenges his sister’s notion that it is easier to not believe in God. Doing so I think he illuminates how I try to approach blogging and knowledge in my general life.

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?


Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

In others words, it is easy to take for granted accepted wisdom and propositions that don’t challenge one’s own opinions and bias. Nietzsche understands that it is not comfortable to have to follow truth wherever it leads, so to speak. I think Sam Harris explains this idea well in his debate with Nature writer Philip Ball. 

A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand.  Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one. 

 A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried to arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.

Nietzsche and Harris argue that something should only accepted as true only if it “has really occurred or is actually the case” (to take the definition of fact from the OED). This notion undergirds all of science with healthy philosophical doubt – making scientists natural skeptics which leads to ever expanding inquiry.  
I’ll take two cases to illustrate how this guides my approach here. In case 1 I hear something that doesn’t fit with my established understanding, but recognize it is still important to inquire about it – maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m right but knowing why is useful regardless. Frankly, I really wanted to show why what I heard was wrong (it would be uncomfortable if it was true). Case 2 is more difficult, I deliberately seek out contrary arguments to my political position. 

Case 1:  I happened to be watching Glenn Beck (not a frequent occurrence) and he was discussing the role of prayer in school and the wider topic of separation of church and state. In the course of his discussion he flashed some graphs made by David Barton which purported to show declining SAT scores and rising crime rates with the removal of prayer and religion from our public schools and state. The most relevant bit starts around the 4:00 mark.

After seeing that I was immediately skeptical of those graphs. I certainly didn’t remember reading that in the research on rising crimes rates presented in Freakonomics! First I did a simple google search of David Barton and his graphs and discovered, surprise, that he’s a “pseudo-historian” that plays loose with quotations and facts. Here’s Barton on those graphs in question:

The Real Reason American Education Has Slipped – David BartonThe funniest movie is here. Find it

Again, I didn’t want to just take another source’s word (one that I’m sympathetic too) for it, so I emailed Steven Levitt on the actual research. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet received a reply (will post when/if possible). Since that avenue hasn’t opened up yet, I had to do a bit more of the dirty work myself – in short, with my admittedly basic understanding of statistics, it became clear that Barton was setting somewhat arbitrary dates of vague events to imprecise moments on his SAT and crime graphs. Mostly, he was just confusing correlation with causation.

Case 2: I’ve been a fairly consistent proponent of reforming our tax code to introduce a VAT, but I’ve tried to continue to highlight challenges to and deficiencies of a value added tax. In my personal inquiry into a VAT’s effects I came across a strong argument against its introduction in the United States. Randall Holcombe of George Mason University finds that a VAT would have high administrative costs, slow economic growth, and not raise as much revenue as expected. He also notes that replacing the income tax with a consumption tax like a VAT would double tax those caught in the intergenerational transition years. That is certainly a valid concern and no doubt is unfair, but also is a recipe for inertia. 
Economists tend to favor a VAT because of its relatively low deadweight loss compared to other forms of taxation. Holcombe explains why in the United States a VAT’s deadweight loss wouldn’t be as low.
In the EU the VAT was designed as a replacement for other transaction-based consumption taxes like the sales tax, whereas if one were to be introduced into the US it would be added to the existing sales taxes collected by states. 

An appendix to this study illustrates, using a supply and demand framework that will be familiar to students of economics, that the welfare loss of a VAT placed on top of state sales taxes would result in a substantially higher excess burden of taxation than a VAT of the same rate in a tax system without state sales taxes. The analysis in the appendix arrives at two conclusions important when considering levying a VAT in the US, where states already use a sales tax to tax the same tax base. First, even if the initial VAT rate is modest, once imposed, both state governments, with their sales tax rates, and the federal government, with its VAT, will have the tendency to raise rates so that the combined sales tax plus VAT rate will be larger than would be optimal. 

The second important conclusion is that a federal VAT would lower state sales tax collections in any event, so state revenues would suffer if a federal VAT were imposed. The reason for this is that all taxes reduce the economic activities they tax. Adding a VAT on top of state sales taxes would reduce the sales tax base states now rely on for a substantial amount of their revenues.

Holcombe suggests the optimal strategy is to cut spending (maybe true but not persuasive because of political realities), but if one must increase tax revenues it should be done by broadening the income tax base. 

The important lesson I want to stress is that all systems have flaws and recognizing so isn’t a sign of a weak argument but of acknowledging reality. It won’t necessarily make my advocacy of a VAT easier or more comfortable but the will to inquire will ensure I’m a disciple of truth not dogma.

(photo: Nietzsche 1864)

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