Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fair weather friends... Mark Buchanan

In one of my guest columns at the New York Times, I touched on the tendency we all have to see the social world in terms of groups -- crudely speaking, in terms of "us versus them". As any number of experiments in social psychology have established, if you separate people into two groups, even on a completely random basis, most will pretty soon start to feel an affiliation to those of their own group, and some degree of antagonism, animosity or distrust of the other group.

We seem to be hard-wired with good skills for detecting group alliances, no doubt because such alliances were for our ancestors a matter of life and potential death, and those who didn't get it right, quickly, suffered.

Some forthcoming research adds a new twist to this topic, showing that we have a surprising flexibility on who we consider to be a member of our "in group", and who we cast off as a deplorable "out group" member.

In 1988, the Jamaican-born, Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson won the gold medal for the 100 meters sprint. Johnson was then later disqualified for steroid use. Canadian psychologists Monika Stelzl, Leslie Janes and Clive Seligman -- stimulated by a personal perception that Johnson’s identity, his Canadian-ness, seemed to shift during this episode -- tested the idea by a quantitative study of articles in a database of Canadian newspapers.

Their results suggest that, in fact, Johnson's identity did shift: he was "‘Canadian’ after winning the gold medal but ‘Jamaican’ after disqualification."

The interesting point is the feedback on group identity -- we have allegiance and emotional solidarity with "in group" members, but at the same time, it seems that who we perceive our in group members to be is subject to subtle redefinition.

Curiously, the authors point to an unlikely early scientist who also wrote about this effect:

"In the two reported studies, we have data capturing a dynamic that Albert Einstein poignantly noted more than 80 years ago: ‘If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew’."

Does God do anything?

No more Stanley Fish after this, but you've got to read his latest outburst on religion to believe it. He's essentially recycling and twisting around the old argument of St. Anselm that God, if you define Him as that thing "than which nothing greater can be conceived," simply must exist. Here's the logic: If He didn't exist, then we could quickly conceive of something greater -- namely an identical He that does exist. That's a contradiction. Therefore God must exist.

If that seems like a swindle, it is. There is, to begin with, the arbitrary judgement that something that exists is greater than something that does not. But also, take the loaded word "God" out of the equation. Can you really prove that "the greatest thing that can possibly be conceived" must exist? Very possibly there just is no sense to the very notion of the "the greatest thing that can possibly be conceived". After all, how about two or four of those things put together, wouldn't they be still greater, meaning there can be no greatest thing we can conceive? In fact, we could use the same kind of argument to disprove God. If He's the greatest thing that can be conceived, then He cannot exist, because there can be no greatest thing that can be conceived.

Fish's argument isn't quite the same, but he takes the view that maybe there are some things that just lie beyond any possibility of scientific investigation. And maybe that's where God resides. The trouble is, if God really does lie (safely) beyond any conceivable scientific investigation, this also implies that whatever He does can have absolutely no effect in our world, and can leave no traces within it (for otherwise we could detect and measure them). He can have no effect. The consequence of pushing Him off the physical stage (so as to salvage your belief, despite the lack of any evidence) is also to acquiesce in the conclusion that God can have no influence on anything in our world whatsoever. Some God.

But actually, I think all this arguing over religious belief is rather ridiculous. People don't believe in God or in gods for reasons. I suspect that we'll eventually understand that belief has clear social and psychological functions, as many scientists already suggest, here, for example, or here.

The latter paper, in particular, offers a nice review of several popular hypotheses, such as that religion plays a role in 1) helping communities to interact successfully with their environments (and to avoid ecological catastrophes), 2) that committing oneself to clearly irrational beliefs is a form of what biologists call "costly signalling," and can enable people within a community to establish cooperative interactions more successfully (in fact, some studies show that religious groups do tend to have higher levels of cooperation than non-religious groups), or 3) that the belief in unseen powers and forces is the hangover from ways of thinking about the world and looking for causal relations that were adaptive for our ancestors.

Rather than trying to banish religion, or argue people out of it, we should try to understand the deeper function of belief. Yet I somehow suspect this idea holds little attraction for Stanley Fish.

Friday, June 22, 2007

How do extremists prevail?

I once tried to read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, and frankly, I couldn't do it. It just bored me. So I stopped. But that book, and Rushdie's writing in general, even his mere existence, is anything but boring to lots of people out there who would very much like to slit his throat. Over at The Agonist, Ali Eteraz in an interesting and spirited post offers his view as a Pakastini on the reasons for the seemingly infinite energy available in the Islamic world for hating Rushie, but more importantly, on the origins of this energy and how it is directed by political and religious leaders for their own ends.

Eteraz also notes that the resulting images -- apparently insane multitudes rioting and burning anything they can find -- play into the fearful imaginations of right-wing demoagogues here in the West, who take these images as the depiction of EVERYONE in the Islamic world. The outcome is a grim feedback cycle in which the extremists on one side succeed in stirring up the extremists on the other, with the ordinary folks in the middle dragged alone for the scary ride.

In a recent post I mentioned the classic work of Robert Axelrod on the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, in which he showed how the TIT-FOR-TAT strategy -- I'll be nice to you to begin with, and then mimic your behavior in the future, meeting either cooperation or cheating with same -- can arise naturally as self-interested people (or other kinds of organisms or agents of any kind) come to learn that conflict is expensive and that cooperation pays. TIT-FOR-TAT is open to cooperation, and willing to stick its neck out to start it off, but clearly prepared for vigorous self-defense. But I wonder this: what happens in such a scenario if the players aren't single individuals able to act in a consistent way, but a population of individuals with views and aims across the board? Would some elements in a population find it easy to sabatoge the cooperation toward which others are working?

I've often wondered if some of the more long-run inter-ethnic struggles -- Israel-Palestine, and Northern Ireland, until recently, for example -- don't somehow reflect the ability of the more extreme components of populations to undermine the natural cooperation that would tend to emerge between self-interested but competing parties. Without the extremists, perhaps these kinds of conflict would settle down quite quickly. Does anyone know of such work? I haven't seen any myself.

State the obvious

In this review over at Salon of Michael Moore's new film Sicko, Stephanie Zacharek makes a powerful and rather obvious point, but one that we do not, strangely enough, hear very often:

"There's something desperately wrong with a nation whose healthcare system... exists not to keep people well and healthy but to make a profit off them."

One day, perhaps not too far from now, a good historian will write the story of how our "system" became so distorted. I think it will have a lot to do with the sorry state of economic science, and its almost religious belief in the power of greed and free markets. In fact, one writer, Robert Nelson, has already explored this theme in his brilliant book Economics as Religion. It's the best thing I've ever read about economics.

A dose of realism

I've never read any professional pundit who is quite so consistently surprising as David Brooks. He ranges from the ridiculous (as, for example, his recent attack on Al Gore) to the sublime, as in his essay today on the nature of human decision making, its deep roots in biology, and why it's long been a mistake (of both left and right) to think that just giving people (such as teenagers living in broken homes and difficult neighborhoods) more information is enough for them to make good decisions. We're pushed and pulled by powerful biological factors, expressed emotionally, for which our logical brains are routinely just no match. Amen to more recognition of the mismatch.

I'm reminded of a proposal by Matthew Rabin and other economists for the notion of "asymmetric paternalism". That's a mouthful, but it's a neat idea. Conservatives often rail against regulation, arguing that it gets in the way of people, who really know best for themselves. Liberals often counter with the realistic point that many people don't make good decisions, and that some get cheated by others, and that regulation can help society come, collectively, to the right kinds of decisions. Asymmetric paternalism is the idea that the right kinds of regulations can 1) not get in the way of those sharp enough always to make the right decisions, yet 2) also help those who tend not to make the right decisons. A couple sentences from the paper's abstract:

"Asymmetrically paternalistic regulations benefit those who would otherwise make poor decisions, but impose little or no costs on those who behave optimally. As such, they challenge both opponents and supporters of regulation by setting forth a disciplined set of criteria by which to judge the costs and benefits of regulatory proposals."

I like the idea.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

blogger woes

I posted a follow on to my earlier discussion about a recent Stanley Fish article, but for some reason it has appeared down the page, as if posted on June 18. Not sure why, but that's where it is!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Stuck in many worlds

Sorry, but no further thoughts today on Stanley Fish and the origins of human altruism. How about something completely different? I'm stuck with a deadline to send off to Nature, tomorrow, a feature on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory. It's taking rather serious organization -- not to mention a lot of thinking.

I'm not actually a fan of the Many Worlds idea, although I've always been deeply fascinated by the foundational problems of quantum theory. I tend to prefer the interpretation suggested by David Bohm (the so-called Bohmian Interpretation) or the various state-reduction theories proposed by people such as Nicolas Gisin or Roger Penrose, in which the wave function actually does collapse at some point, in an objective way.

Still, it seems that quite a few physicists have become enamoured by the Many Worlds idea, in which there is no collapse at all, but one has to admit a wild and continuing splitting of the universe into ever more worlds, with observers (us!) splitting too all the time. That seems rather too much for me.... but there are some merits to the approach, and smart people putting forth new arguments. (However, and this is my personal suspicion: these theorists tend to be working either in cosmology or in areas linked closely to quantum computing, and so, one might say, lie at the extreme tail of physicists whose views are most weakly constrained by contact with empirical reality.... just my suspicion.)

Anyway,the best person to read on this is Roger Penrose, say Chapters 29 and 30, of his monumental The Road to Reality. I find myself agreeing with him, rather than some very famous others, because his arguments just seem to make more sense.

Sorry... back to the origins of altruism soon....

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sticking your neck out (II) -- Mark Buchanan

A little more to add to my recent post about Stanley's Fish's peculiar attack on atheists Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. He suggested that science has no understanding of human altruism, which is simply untrue. I'm no expert in this, to be sure, but I do know a little, because this is mainstream science...

First of all, there is an enormous literature in evolutionary biology on the genetic roots of altruistic behavior among people (or other organisms, even bacteria) who are closely related. The idea -- first argued by the late biologist William Hamilton -- is that, from the "selfish gene" perspective, acting altuistically toward close relatives tends to aid the passage of your own genes into the next generation, because your close relatives, to a great extent, have the same genes you do. This has been the subject of countless books; essentially anything written by Dawkins explains it quite clearly, and there's masses of empirical evidence supporting the importance of this mechanism in establishing altruism in the real world.

Interestingly, biologists are finding that this mechanism for cooperation has huge consequences, even in communities of organisms as simple as bacteria. In a bacterial colony under stress, for example. many bacteria will spontaneously sacrifice themselves for the good of the group. You can't see our human love and devotion to family as anything unique to people; it runs all through biology as a major theme. I wrote about this a couple of years ago for New Scientist.

At another level, there's also a huge literature in economics and biology on the subject of so-called reciprocal altruism, or what might be called "strategic" altruism -- the way we learn to get along with others because we benefit from cooperation. Probably the best book on this, and certainly the most fascinating, is the classic by Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. People learning to get along isn't a mystery either -- it's often just a good way to get by in a difficult word, and to benefit from the fact that together we can do more than apart (not that I mean to imply that the details of how this all works are simple or not the matter of continuing argument).

So maybe Fish has in mind "pure" altruism -- people running into burning buildings to save strangers, or giving tips to waiters in foreign lands they'll never visit again? Although hard-boiled economic rationalists tried to deny that such altruism existed until recently, a tidal wave of recent experiments has shown that it is certainly real. In experiments -- see the work of Ernst Fehr, for many fascinating examples -- many people will willingly act to help strangers even when they remain anonymous, and the interaction takes place only once, so there can be no hope of reciprocal gain in the future. How do you explain this?

I've written about some of the current work in this area in my book The Social Atom. Although there is still controversy in this area -- hardly surprising, as it is at the forefront of current research -- one strongly persuasive idea is that "pure" altruism of this sort probably evolved because it helped the small groups of our hunter gatherer ancestors to coordinate themselves for collective tasks such as hunting, providing for the collective defense, and so on. Even though being a pure altruist hurts individuals in rough interaction with other individuals -- in the battle for mates, or scraps at the table -- it helps in the battles between different groups. And if the competition between groups is strong enough, this can more than outweigh the costs to individuals, so that group competition effectively produces a fraction of pure altruists. To read some of the good work in this area, I recommend the work of anthropologist Robert Boyd, among others.

Anyway, this post has become long enough. I think I've at least established that there isn't no science of human altruism. I'm not sure what Mr. Fish was thinking. Having said that, I have enjoyed many of his other articles for the NYT.

Sticking your neck out

In today's New York Times, Stanley Fish tries to take apart the logic of arguments employed by several recent critics of religion, such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I don't think he succeeds, and in fact, I think he seriously misrepresents how much science is helping us to understand human emotions and ethical behavior, such as human altruism. We're not in the dark on these things, although that's the impression a reader might be left with.

Fish starts with what to me -- without having yet read the books in question -- seems like a fair point. He suggests that the authors (especially Harris and Dawkins) don't back up their claims about the power of science with any evidence. He quotes Harris, for example, as saying

"There is every reason to believe that sustained inquiry in the moral sphere will force convergence of our various belief systems in the way that it has in every other science.”

Yet Harris, Fish relates, also acknowledges that to date “little convergence has been achieved in ethics,” not only because “so few of the facts are in” but because “we have yet to agree about the most basic criteria for deeming an ethical fact, a fact.”

Fish concludes, rightly, that Harris, in this material at least, isn't really backing up his claim:

"This is a remarkable sequence ... A very strong assertion is made – we will 'undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct' – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence. This sounds an awfully lot like faith of the kind Harris and his colleagues deride."

Fish catches Dawkins in a similarly sloppy episode of reasoning. Fair enough. Bad reasoning ought to be critized.

But Fish then goes on to suggest -- I think -- that Harris and Dawkins have fluffed the logic because there really isn't any scientific evidence to suggest that we can understand human behavior, including ethical behavior, in natural terms, or that the science is so underdeveloped that appeal to supernatural explanations is just as legitimate. He gets a bit weird in one place, where I'm sure I cannot quite understand what he really means.

To Dawkins' claim that there are "good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other”, Fish responds with this baffling retort:

"Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I 'believe in evolution,' Dawkins declares, 'because the evidence supports it'; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it."

This misrepresents how science works in a serious way. Science doesn't work by using evidence to formulate a hypothesis, then using the hypothesis to explain the evidence. If it did, it would be wortheless. Rather, science uses evidence to formulate a hypothesis, and then tests that hypothesis against OTHER evidence; that is, against other facts that are independent from the first set of facts. Only if the hypothesis stands up to the new set of facts does it get good marks, and even then only temporarily, as it has also to stand up against all other new sets of facts that might arise in the future.

Good science, as the American physicist Richard Feynman used to say, has to "stick its neck out."

So while I think Fish scores some points on the atheists, they're cheap debating points. I'll say more on this in a post tomorrow. There is, in fact, good scientific work on human emotions and ethics, and good reason to expect that we'll come to understand the origins of our ethical behavior in terms of the beneficial collective patterns to which such behaviors have led our ancestors.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Inauthentic authenticity? - Mark Buchanan

John Neffinger makes a poignant observation in commenting on Paul Krugman's recent column concerning the alleged "authenticity" of Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. Krugman criticized mainstream political "experts" -- such as Lanny Davis, writing in The Hill -- for referring to Thompson as being more "authentic" than other candidates. Obviously, such talk is rather hard to defend given the mismatch between Thompson's carefully crafted political persona as a down home farmer who drives a pick-up and his life in reality as an actor and Washington lobbyist with 18 years experience.

As Neffinger points out, "authentic" isn't the right word, but what Davis and other media figures focus on is nonetheless real -- the style of body language and non-verbal signals that Thompson (a professional actor) gives off, which tend to convey that a person is "comfortable with themselves and their place in the world, that they aren't conflicted about what they are feeling, and they don't much care what anyone else thinks of them." We might call it "feigned authenticity," which is certainly close to the very opposite of real authenticity. But as Neffinger notes, many studies point to the overwhelming influence of just these kind of non-verbal signals in determining who wins an election, so it's not surprising that political analysts talk about them.

In fact, lots of modern research is showing that non-verbal and often non-conscious influences are far more important in determing how we act than anyone might have thought, and even in situations where we feel in full conscious control. In some recent experiments, for example, Alex Pentland and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab had business students take part in mock negotiations, which took about 45 minutes to complete. Afterward, the students explained who came out on top by referring to tactics and important exchanges part way through the negotiation. But the researchers found they could predict with something like 80% accuracy who would come out on top just from a few seconds of recorded voice and body language at the very outset; what the students said had nothing to do with the outcome.

This is also likely true of who we vote for. It's not what they say, but how they say it. Depressing, perhaps, but that's people.

Still, Krugman does have an important point, in that media commentators -- acting as journalists -- cause serious mischief by talking about authenticity in such a casual and misleading way. In an age in which marketers and political advisors exploit psychological science with increasing sophistication to manipulate peoples' minds, a responsible press wouldn't be complicit in the manipulation, but would serve a valuable role in exposing the techniques and strategies used, which might help some people to resist their force. The media could act as a kind of collective filter to help sort out real information from carefully crafted image. Too often, unfortunately, they seem to act more as mindless amplifiers of the image-makers' messages, which doesn't fit with my understanding, at least, of "authentic" journalism.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

No more guarantees -- Mark Buchanan

"For over two centuries of growth and struggle, peace and war, the Constitution has secured our freedom through the guarantee that, in the United States, no one will be deprived of liberty without due process of law. Yet more than four years ago military authorities seized an alien lawfully residing here. He has been held by the military ever since -- without criminal charge or process. He has been so held despite the fact that he was initially taken from his home in Peoria, Illinois by civilian authorities, and indicted for purported domestic crimes. He has been so held although the Government has never alleged that he is a member of any nation’s military, has fought alongside any nation’s armed forces, or has borne arms against the United States anywhere in the world. And he has been so held, without acknowledgment of the protection afforded by the Constitution...,"

So begins the judgement handed down Monday by Judge Diana Gribbon Motz of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri. Motz's opinion is worth reading, as it illustrates in a most disturbing way just how far our norms of what is acceptable have been twisted out of shape over the past six years. Should the President have the right to detain and imprison any non-citizen for as long as he likes? And should he be able to do so without providing any evidence? According to the current administration, yes. And the law, as it has recently been rewritten, comes frighteningly close to backing them up.

What is perhaps most disturbing about the opinion is that it seems – to my admittedly very non-expert legal mind – to rest on what is almost a technicality. Indeed, the court had to engage in some tricky reasoning just to conclude that it had jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place. The Military Commissions Act (MCA), a statute passed by congress in October 2006, says that “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”

By an order of President Bush in 2003, Al-Marri was “determined by the United States” to be an enemy combatant, and according to the administration, that's the end of the argument; the court therefore has no jurisdiction. The court argues, however, that the government never took the required steps to ensure that Al-Marri was “properly detained” as an enemy combatant, and so the MCA did not preclude it from hearing the case. Had the MCA not contained the words “to have been properly detained,” Al-Marri would have no recourse – nor would any other non-citizen detained and imprisoned for any reason whatsoever.

The point isn't, of course, that Al-Marri is innocent. On that matter, we simply have no idea, as the government refuses to present any evidence. If they do have evidence, then they have options. "Al-Marri can be returned to civilian prosecutors,” the opinion continues, “tried on criminal charges, and, if convicted, punished severely. But the Government cannot subject al-Marri to indefinite military detention. For in the United States, the military cannot seize and imprison civilians -- let alone imprison them indefinitely."

At least for now. But we're hanging on by a thread that is worryingly thin.

Friday, June 1, 2007


For one final time, I'd very much like to thank everyone who read and commented on my recent guest column in the New York Times. I've traditionally been writing for print media (rather than online), and typically get responses in the form of maybe one or two letters to the editor, so it's been exciting to get hundreds of responses, quickly, to what I've written, all extremely intelligent and well informed.

I'll start posting some more stuff here soon, but I'm currently tied up over the next week or so with getting ready to give some public talks in California (for the book, which just came out).

Anyone who's found their way here from the NYT, please do check back soon. And if you do live in or around the Bay Area, please come and say hello. I'll be at Xerox Parc on June 7 giving a talk in their Forum series, then at The Commonwealth Club on June 8, and at Kepler's Bookstore in Menlo Park later on the same day.