Woof!

Thinkingly, winkingly,
Internet videos
Promise us puppies who
Patently plan;

Claim that it isn’t just
Anthropomorphism—
Clearly, these canines are
Thinking like Man

Over at NPR’s 13.7:Cosmos And Culture blog, Barbara J. King has another of her pieces on animal cognition. I very much enjoy these, even when I fundamentally disagree…like today.

The post is “Do Dogs Think?” (don’t jump too quickly–she explains her title very early on, and it is justified)–clearly, King is on the side of Yea. Which is fine–I also think dogs think… but I suspect that King and I differ on our conceptions of “thinking”. (I did comment at the article–I won’t reproduce those here.)

The trick is, the videos she uses to exemplify complex thought in dogs (at the link) are far too easily explained more “simply” in terms of conditioning (operant, in this case). Which gets me thinking, myself. First (as I say in my first comment, though not in these words), the videos necessarily narrow our focus onto an artificially brief segment of time; we cannot see the history of learning behind each performance. The segments end when the photographer wants them to, so we cannot see what happens next. Any editing of a segment of film may cut out important information; in this case, any trial and error, any shaping and differential reinforcement, that preceded the filmed incident.

(As an aside, the dear departed Cuttledog very cleverly put her paw on a plate to hold it still while she licked it clean. Very cleverly… until you realize that it took her 7 years to stumble on that little trick.)

King welcomed my skepticism, and asked whether it might be hypocritical (not her words!) to explain non-human behavior through conditioning, but not human. And she’d be right, except that a) I fully accept that human behavior (including thinking) is the product of our environmental histories, in a selectionist process many call “conditioning”, and b) I further assert that much of what our current view of human thought is, is utter balderdash. We are not able to feel ourselves thinking (no sensory neurons in the brain), so our introspective accounts are not a measure of our actual thinking, but rather a measure of the influence of our verbal community. For centuries, we have used a dualistic, mentalistic vocabulary (how often do you find the words “mind” or “mental” or “mentally” creeping into your sentences?), which does not correspond to what we know of the nervous system, let alone the interaction of our behavior with a dynamic environment.

So… Do animals think the way we think? I suspect that, very probably, they do. Do animals think the way that we think that we think? Almost certainly not. Do we think the way we think that we think? Again, almost certainly not. How do we think? Ah… an excellent question.

On Monsters

He’s a monster; he’s not human—
He’s the devil in disguise!
The embodiment of evil;
You can see it in his eyes!
No iota of morality
No evidence of soul
Where a man should have a human heart
This demon has a hole.

His behavior was horrific—
Inexcusable, in fact;
No real human could have done it
It’s a horrid, beastly act
If he’d had the slightest conscience
He’d be overcome with shame…
So let’s sentence him to torture;
We can treat him just the same!

Let’s imprison him with Bubba
Where he never will escape
Take his time, to learn the lesson
On the other side of rape
We can chain him; we can whip him,
We can break a rib or two…
Cos he has to learn, these things are not
What moral people do.

Wow. Now that God finally saved those three women in Cleveland, it’s become downright unpleasant to read through the comment sections on news sites. The argument seems to be “nobody should ever treat another human being like this man treated those women, therefore we should treat this man like he treated those women.” Or “he’s a depraved monster for doing what he did; we should do the same to him.” Or “what kind of sick fuck is capable of such behavior, he ought to be flayed alive in the town square, suspended by his testicles over a hornet nest and beaten with hot pokers.” Because we are more moral than he is.

I have seen a handful of people calling out the would-be official torturers and those calling for prison rape as a reasonable sentence. They are accused of taking the rapist’s side, of course–because if you don’t want the skin peeled off of his face with a garden trowel, you are soft on crime and a liberal communist.

No sentence we could give him could ever pay back what he took from those women. That would be impossible. That cannot, and should not, be the standard we hold ourselves to. But we should not allow him to take our humanity from us as well. If what he did is detestable (and it is), it should be detestable for anyone to do it (and it is). The internet commenters calling for such treatment should take a good hard look at who they are choosing as their role model.

“Men And Women Aren’t Equal”

“Men and Women aren’t equal”, she wrote—
Just one of those stories you read now and then.
The truth, which the article fails, though, to note:
Women aren’t equal, and neither are men.

You won’t want to read it without a central nervous system depressant of choice, but foxnews.com has an opinion piece “To be happy, we must admit women and men aren’t ‘equal’“.

How bad is it?

But the truth must be heard. Being equal in worth, or value, is not the same as being identical, interchangeable beings. Men and women may be capable of doing many of the same things, but that doesn’t mean they want to. That we don’t have more female CEOs or stay-at-home dads proves this in spades.

Unless, of course, you’re beholden to feminism. In that case, you’ll believe the above is evidence of discrimination. You’ll believe what feminists taught you to believe: that gender is a social construct.

Those of us with children know better. We know little girls love their dolls and boys just want to kick that ball. This doesn’t mean men can’t take care of babies or women can’t play sports. It just means each gender has its own energy that flows in a specific direction. For God’s sake, let it flow.

You can click through for more if you want, but I really don’t recommend it.

I used to run a daycare. I know boys who love their dolls, and girls who want to kick that ball (and even if the writer was accurate, we’d still be left asking why; “it’s a boy/girl thing” is not an explanation). The thing is, boys and girls (and women and men) are not monolithic. For someone so eager to see differences between groups, the author of the article seems blind to differences within groups. And the differences within groups–the differences among individuals–are what matter. I’ve had female (and male) students who were faster than me, stronger than me, smarter than me (no, really!)… and it is very clear: making policies that shut doors based on averages (or worse, on stereotypes) will shut those doors on tremendously qualified individuals.

And when that happens, everybody loses.

Ooooh! Cuttlecap tip to @JessicaValenti (via Twitter, natch), who notes that the photo accompanying the article is (unbeknownst to Fox News) a same sex couple!

Doing “Wrong” Right

Two experts, both alike in views
(So much, you can’t tell whose is whose)
Saw something on the evening news
Which challenged their belief

And something that they’d thought was right,
Believing in with all their might,
They now saw in a different light—
It brought them both to grief

The first said “well, I’ve got to change—
Although, of course, it’s rather strange,
My whole worldview I’ll re-arrange
Cos what I thought, was wrong”

The second, though, without remorse,
Declared, “I’d rather stay the course—
Deny the facts; dispute the source,
I’m sailing straight along.”

And when the first apologized,
Revealing that he’d realized
His former view was compromised,
The second was insistent:

“Your newfound view means naught to me—
Your reputation’s shot, you see—
Untouchable, you ought to be,
Because you’re inconsistent!”

Consistency, you can’t deny,
Is crucial in the public eye
But if your stance is just a lie
Perhaps it’s best to quit

We know, a fool’s consistent stand
When better data are at hand
Is often prized, throughout this land…
But still, it’s full of shit.

I just saw a truly rare and remarkable bit of video. You can see it here. Mark Lynas, formerly an anti-GM food activist (until 2008, when the data persuaded him he had been wrong) is interviewed on the BBC’s HARDtalk; the linked video is an excerpt.

First… this is how you do it. As a leader in the anti-GM food movement, it could not have been pleasant to make this change, but Lynas not only made the change, he publicly renounced his former views, and publicly apologized to those whom his actions had harmed. In the linked clip, host Stephen Sackur (to my thinking, anyway) really tries to rub Lynas’s nose in it, pushing him well beyond what I would have been comfortable with. Lynas sits there and takes it, admits some fairly embarrassing things (for instance, how flimsy the evidence was that led him not merely to protest, but to become a leader in the protest movement), and owns up to his past behavior.

Sackur prods: “So that leaves your personal credibility in shreds.” “So you’re ashamed of the entire approach you took; your complete lack of intellectual rigor.” Again, to me, this is a bit much, but Lynas does not get defensive; he admits that he is on the record apologizing for his actions, personally, to the individuals he has wronged.

This is a brief clip, but it illustrates a few things beautifully. First, what Lynas shows that an intelligent person, in the right surroundings, can easily be caught up in thinking something is right when it is demonstrably not. Second, he demonstrates exactly what we should do, but which can be so difficult to do, when confronted by solid evidence that this thing we thought was true is not. Third, he models how to take responsibility, how to own up to previous mistakes, how not to simply get defensive when called out. Fourth…tangentially, but importantly… the clip makes clear that our culture values consistency. A view that changes when new data are available should not be seen as a weakness, but all too often it is.

Disaster Preparation 101

There’s a chance we’ll be demolished by an asteroid from space
There’s a chance a wayward comet comes our way
There’s a certain probability the dangers that we face
Mean tomorrow is our last surviving day

There’s the promise of a super-quake that shakes us to the core
Or the ultimate volcano of them all
There are dozens of diseases we are not preparing for
Even one would be a horror to befall

We are petrified of portents; we are terrified of signs
We are worried that predictions come to pass
Whether ancient Mayan calendars, or when the moon aligns
We’re convinced the cosmos wants to kick our ass

With the slightest provocation, we will panic in the street
Cos we’re utterly convinced that we are right
Spend our savings in convincing any strangers that we meet
That the world is going to end… and, yes, tonight.

But it isn’t really crazy—no, I’m skeptical, you know,
There’s some really stupid stuff I don’t believe
Like this global warming bullshit, while I’m shoveling the snow
And the vaccination doctors who deceive

Or a change in ocean chemistry, from acids in the air
That could stunt our biggest food chain at its source
There are scientists aplenty who will tell me I should care
But they’re shilling for the government, of course

So I’ll prep for Armageddon, or for zombies on the loose,
Or a multitude of aliens from Mars
But this climate propaganda is a thinly veiled excuse
For the government to take away our cars!

There are far, far greater dangers we are certain we might face
That would bring the population to its knees
So we fret about an asteroid destroying us from space
While we’re killing off our future, by degrees

I hope it’s just an availability heuristic thing, and a handful of unrepresentative stories in the media, but wow. People prepped bunkers for the Mayan apocalypse. Harold Camping convinced people the world was going to end…like, six times. On the strength of a splinter group’s interpretation of an ancient text, or a psychic’s premonition, or the ranting of a radio host who profits when you buy gold, guns, or dehydrated food, people are moved to prepare for the worst. But when the scientific consensus points to a far more likely (but long term and slower) disaster?

*sigh*

Colony Of Penguins Discovered, Thanks To Poop Visible From Space

Some scientists have figured out
A means of penguin-snooping;
A camera, beamed from outer space
Can see where they’ve been pooping.

The penguins stay on floes of ice,
For months in just one place
Which leaves a stain of shit so big
It’s visible from space.

The guano—smelly, reddish-brown,
Corrosive, salty goo—
Leaves such a stain, ten colonies
Were found when they were through.

Of course, the waste we humans leave
Is seen from space as well—
The lights by night, the smoke by day
(At least, in space, no smell)

I wonder, once we’ve run our course
And disappeared for good
Will, someday, trails of human waste
Be seen and understood?

Will future beings study us—
As findings will permit—
And learn how humans went extinct
By studying our shit?

In a follow-up to a story from 4 years ago, a colony of some 9,000 penguins was recently discovered in Antarctica.

Until last month, this group of 9,000 Emperor penguins had never seen a human being before. And no human knew about their existence either — until a satellite picked up images of their poop from space. That’s right. These penguins are so populous that their waste is visible from orbit. Though they were discovered in 2009, humans were not able to visit them in person until December 2012.

Of course, the waste from our own human colonies is also visible from space. As I wrote back in 2009, I wonder if some future species will ever learn about us this way. Seems only fitting.

What Frightens Me

“Romney’s chances of winning are low”
is the message wherever I go
But what keeps me up nights–
Do I only chose sites
That confirm what I already “know”?

Confirmation bias, that’s what frightens me. You see it everywhere, especially the big news/opinion sites. Read about the latest poll and what it means in an article, and then check what the readers have taken away.

Republican commenters will point to one or two outlying polls as “accurate”, and to others as “liberally biased”. I have (no, I won’t dig it up) seen commenters utterly certain that Rove has “put the fix in” in a handful of districts, and really, it only comes down to a handful of districts in a handful of states. I have heard, again and again–and from both sides–”just you wait until November; you’ll see!”

I remember a reporter, back in 1988, who was just gobsmacked that Dukakis had not won. The reporter had been assigned to the Democrat’s campaign, and as such was inside the protective bubble of spin control. Every bit of news was filtered through an environment that heard what it wanted to hear, and refused to hear what it did not, to the point where a supposedly objective newsman fully expected, even in the last weeks, a Dukakis win.

It makes perfect sense that, in an age of information glut, where we simply do not have time to take in all the available information, that we pick and choose what we will read or listen to. And it is perfectly human of us to be biased when we do so. My mother in law fully expects a Romney/Ryan landslide. All the polls she has seen point that way. I find myself visiting Nate Silver’s blog and hoping he’s right.

In my visits to news sites, I see people utterly convinced of the truth of diametrically opposed realities. And it scares me to death.

Not because I see it in them.

But because I don’t always see it in me. And yet, the odds are I am doing the same thing.

Oh, and the “push polls” have started! These are polls that are designed with clearly biased questions, intended to force the respondent to respond favorably to whoever is behind the poll (“given X’s history of mistakes, can he be trusted to…?”). These biased polls are intended to give a picture of support, or of momentum, or of some sort of consensus for a candidate above what the candidate has actually earned. So the polls my mother in law cites, for instance, may well exist, although they may be methodologically suspect.

And since none (or very few) of us have the time or resources to check the methodologies of all of the relevant polls, we all too often trust… the ones that agree with our expectations.

And that frightens me.