Sexual economics, a theory in need of reworking

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015.  It’s just some good old-fashioned making fun of pseudoscientific nonsense.

Recently, my attention was caught by the idea of the “sexual marketplace”.  Specifically, there’s a theory of sexual economics created by Baumeister and Vohs.  If you’d rather not read the paper, the Austin Institute* made a fancy video about it:

*Apparently, it’s a think tank run by Mark Regnerus.  Yes, that Mark Regnerus.

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Muddling the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that people with the lowest competence tend to overrate their competence, but people with the highest competence tend to underrate themselves. This was shown in 1999 paper by Dunning and Kruger.1 Here’s one of the figures from the paper:

A graph showing people's self-assessed ability, and actual test score. The bottom quartile gives themselves a rating in the 60 percentile, and the top quartile gives themselves a rating in the 75 percentile.

This figure shows results from a test on humor. People are scored based on how well their answers agree with those of professional comedians, and then they are asked to assess their own performance. There were similar results for tests on grammar and logic.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has entered popular wisdom, and is frequently brought up whenever people feel like they’re dealing with someone too stupid to know how stupid they are.  But does the research actually mean what people think it means?

Before reading into this subject, I must admit that I had a major misconception.  I thought that people’s self-assessment was actually anti-correlated with their competence.  I thought someone who knew nothing would actually be more confident than someone who knew a lot.  (This leads to an amusing dilemma: Should I choose to give myself a lower rating, because it would that increase posterior probability that I’m more competent?2)

But it is not true.  People who know nothing are less confident than people who know a lot.  People who know nothing are overconfident relative to their actual ability, but they are still not as confident as people who have high ability.

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Attraction and emotional granularity

This article was written for the Carnival of Aces themed on “Nuance & Complexity“. It is being cross-posted to my other blog, The Asexual Agenda.

Asexuality is chiefly about noticing a distinction between the emotions you perceive in other people, and the emotions you perceive in yourself. We give a name to this distinction, for example by saying some people experience sexual attraction and some people do not. And we discuss appropriate responses to our emotions, for example by saying that some emotions mean we want to have sex, and other emotions do not.

Within ace communities, we often discuss further distinctions in emotions. Again, we give names to these distinctions, for example by talking about romantic attraction, platonic attraction, aesthetic attraction, sensual attraction, and so forth. And we discuss appropriate responses to these emotions, for example by describing what kinds of relationships might satisfy our emotions, or if a particular emotion only makes us want to look at a person.

The ability to distinguish different emotions is a nascent research topic in psychology. And while you shouldn’t let psychology research dictate how you live, looking into the research may give us insight into a common topic.

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Sleeping Beauty and Quantum Mechanics

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2014.  Note that Sean Carroll also wrote about this, and he’s an author of the cited paper.

My newest favorite philosophical dilemma is the Sleeping Beauty problem.  The experiment goes as follows:

1. Sleeping Beauty is put to sleep.
2. We flip a coin.
3. If the coin is tails, then we wake Sleeping Beauty on Monday, and let her go.
4. If the coin is heads, then we wake Sleeping Beauty on Monday.  Then, we put her to sleep and cause her to lose all memory of waking up.  Then we wake her up on Tuesday, and let her go.
5. Now imagine Sleeping Beauty knows this whole setup, and has just been woken up.  What probability should she assign to the claim that the coin was tails?

There are two possible answers.  “Thirders” believe that Sleeping Beauty should assign a probability of 1/3 to tails.  “Halfers” believe that Sleeping Beauty has gained no new relevant information, and therefore should assign a probability of 1/2 to tails.  The thirder answer is most popular among philosophers.

This has deep implications for physics.

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Magic-Angle Graphene Superconductors

A couple weeks ago, there was an exciting discovery in my (former) field of research. It was found that if you take two layers of graphene, and rotate one of the layers by a “magic angle” of 1.1°, then you can create a superconductor.

Some brief background on superconductors. A superconductor is a kind of material that conducts electricity with zero resistance. That means you could transport electrical power without any energy loss. Or you could create so much electrical current that it creates a powerful magnet (used in MRI machines). Superconductors also have special magnetic properties that allow for magnetic levitation (used in maglev trains). But superconductors need to be cooled below a certain temperature to work, otherwise they’re just ordinary materials.

As of 1957, physicists have a working theory of superconductors, but the theory only explains certain varieties of superconductors, called conventional superconductors. Magic-angle graphene is an unconventional superconductor.

So, why would you ever try rotating two layers of graphene? Graphene is simply a layer of carbon atoms that form a hexagonal pattern. If you overlay two hexagonal patterns with a bit of rotation, you create what’s called a Moiré pattern.

Two hexagonal grids, one rotated by 10 degrees, form a moire pattern when overlaid.

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Paper: Asexuality in China’s Sexual Revolution

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015, for The Asexual Agenda.  A few small changes were made to incorporate corrections by commenters.

It’s well-known that English asexual communities are dominated by people in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. [The Asexual Agenda] has made minimal efforts to include voices from other countries, but one of our blind spots is China. You know, that one country that has three times more people than the US, UK, Canada, and Australia combined.

The thing is, between the language barrier and the Great Firewall, hardly anyone in the English-speaking community knows anything. The closest we’ve gotten is our interview with Robin, but Taiwan isn’t the same as Mainland China at all. And given the complete lack of communication, it’s possible that asexuality in China is so different as to be unrecognizable.

That’s why I was interested to see this recent paper: Asexuality in China’s Sexual Revolution: Asexual Marriage as a Coping Strategy. By Day Wong, in Sexualities, February 2015.

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Biased Tests

[cn: Bayesian math]

Suppose that I create a test to measure suitability for a particular job. I give this test to a bunch of people, and I find that women on average perform more poorly. Does this mean that women are less suitable for the job, or does it mean that my test is biased against women?

Psychologists do this all the time. They create new tests to measure new things, and then they give the tests to a variety of different groups to observe average differences. So they have a standard statistical procedure to assess whether these tests are biased.

But I recently learned that the standard procedure is mathematically flawed. In fact, rather than producing an unbiased test, the standard procedure practically guarantees a biased test. This is an issue that causes much distress among psychometricians such as Roger Millsap.

Following Millsap, I will describe the standard method for assessing test bias, sketch a proof that it must fail, and discuss some of the consequences.

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