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

Claim that it isn’t just
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.

“Reality Beyond The Material”

“All of human experience, over millennia, suggests a richness and complexity of reality beyond the material.”

I’ve heard there’s a heaven, its streets paved with gold,
Where diamonds and platinum gleams
It’s as real as my hand is, or so I’ve been told,
Though it might just be Swedenborg’s dreams.

I’ve heard I have angels who watch what I do
And act, if I do something rash
The lady who told me, she swore it was true
Then she charged me a whole lot of cash

I’ve heard I can heal any ailment at all
But first, I just have to believe
No matter what problem, how big or how small,
But science just cannot perceive!

I’ve heard there are miracles, wonders, and more,
Overflowing reality’s cup
And I’m thinking it’s something I ought to ignore…
Cos it looks like just making shit up

So yeah… my aggregator threw this at me today. From the Jamaica Gleaner, it’s “Science and Religion: a clash of two faiths”. The title alone tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the author’s position. The only additional info you might need is to note that this article is a response to a previous article… or, as the present author puts it:

Every now and again, some of the puff-chested doctors-cum-priests of science and a wide variety of coat-tail-hanging quacks emerge to advise us that religion, and particularly Christianity, is terminally ill. This is especially strange since modern science is irrefutably a product of Christian faith, more particularly of Protestant Christian faith.

So here comes another one, Dr Patrick White, who holds a doctorate in engineering and has led research groups at Bell Labs, puffingly announcing ‘Christianity losing race against science’ (Gleaner, July 1, 2013).

Initially, I was a bit confused as to whether science or puffery was the enemy. Turns out it’s science.

Science is replete with its own pet prejudices, bigotry and religious zealotry. At its epistemological core, science, as preached by many practitioners and bandwagon believers, operates on two weak assumptions: The reductionist view that reality is purely material, the interplay of matter and energy; and that the only way of truly knowing is by ‘scientific method’.

All of human experience, over millennia, suggests a richness and complexity of reality beyond the material. Science has been quite glibly willing to dismiss the mountain of evidence of non-material reality in defence of its own pet prejudice and in a deliberate and concerted effort to get rid of ‘god’ and the supernatural, which might be more properly described as the ‘othernatural’ rather than the ‘supernatural’.

Go ahead and read it… look for the critique of religion that matches the critique of science. Science is critiqued, and by virtue of a version of special pleading, religion is there to pick up the pieces.

Taking science on its own ground, no hypothesis of origins can be established by scientific method because it simply cannot be tested, a key requirement of validating hypotheses. Origin, whether of matter or of life, is a unique, one-off, non-replicable event of the distant past without human witnesses. Scientific method proceeds by examining replicable phenomena for attaining reliable and valid results. In matters of origins, we all ultimately stand on a platform of faith.

The only rational, purely natural ‘scientific’ position is that we, conscious and self-reflective human beings, find ourselves here. We do not know where we came from. We do not know why we are here. We do not know where we are going.

Science can answer none of these critical existential questions. And science can assign no value to human life. The object cannot value itself. Value is derived from being valuable to another.

Sure, religion can’t answer scientific questions, but that’s not its fault:

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has often been its own worst enemy in the contrived conflict with science. The Bible is not a science text and was not intended to be. The pronouncements of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church upon cosmology which led to its ‘routing’ by Copernicus and Galileo, over which Patrick White now gloats, had no warrant in data sources available to the Church.

The article concludes

As powerful and productive as they have been, science and scientific method are not without boundaries of competence to define and to examine reality. Trespassing outside those boundaries is definitely not scientific, and bluff and bluster by the doctors, priests and quacks of science cannot change that simple fact.

which the casual observer will note does not advance the cause of religion one inch. The argument is, roughly, “if it is not the 4th of July, it must necessarily be Christmas.” Sorry, but knocking down science (worse, knocking down science based on your inadequate understanding of it) does not strengthen religion.

Tearing down my neighbor’s house does not strengthen my own. Pretending to tear down my neighbor’s house is just as futile, with the added benefit of making me look like a fool.

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

Poisoned Baits Drive Cockroach Evolution

Evolution is cleverer than you are. Orgel’s Second Rule

A little bit of tempting treat
That smells and tastes so glucose-sweet
Is what a cockroach loves to eat
And so it will, perhaps.
But human beings, as of late,
Present the bugs a different fate
By sweetening the poisoned bait
They’re using in their traps

Appetitive behavior means
There’s coding somewhere in the genes
That link sensilla (small machines
For chemical detection)
With action—bugs approach or flee
If foods are sweet or bitter, see?
Our mixing poison now is key:
A pressure for selection!

But insect populations vary;
Roaches may or may not carry
Genes that make them glucose-wary,
Acting on their brains
If, in our anti-cockroach war
We use these sweetened poisons more,
Such genes will be selected for
Creating different strains

And so, although the people’s goal
Was ultimately pest control
It seems that nature found a hole
And made its own solution
The roaches that we tried to kill
By poisoning their sweetened swill
Outsmarted us—and always will,
Cos such is evolution!

In Science, just out today (yes, I am just that good), a story on rapid evolution of behavioral aversion to glucose in cockroaches, as a response to a strong selection pressure of sweetened poison baits. Behaviorally, these roaches are now avoiding foods with glucose. Physiologically, their gustatory response neurons have changed–sugar-GRN and bitter-GRN respond differentially to glucose and to caffeine in wild-type cockroaches, but in roach population with a history of exposure to sweetened poison baits, glucose stimulates the bitter-GRN response.

Mind you, selection takes place at the level of behavior, so this may or may not be the only proximal mechanism behind the change in behavior. Any change that selectively gets roaches to avoid poisoned baits will be strongly selected for.

We’ve seen this before–our best efforts to eliminate a pest are seen by evolution as just another selection pressure among many. And in the long run, we see time and time again… evolution is cleverer than we are.

And isn’t it beautiful?

Send Your Haiku To Mars! (or… not)

Have I mentioned that I hate Haikus? Not real haiku, but haiku as it has been translated into American.

I don’t speak Japanese–well, not much. Very little, but I have been told by a Japanese student that my pronunciation is remarkable. Which, I suspect, is only true in comparison to this student’s experience with other Americans. A low bar is easy to jump.

But I am told that haiku is Japanese like baseball is American. Yes, it has been exported, but not without transplant rejection. Haiku is, I am told, beautiful and perfect in Japanese; in American, haiku is counting syllables. Sometimes more than that, but only rarely, and oh my goodness is it difficult to tell.

But that’s not my point.

My point is, NASA is looking to send three haikus to Mars, with the MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN) mission. Three haikus. In English, which means 51 syllables in total.

And I think it is a horrible idea. If you are going to send haikus, have a Japanese competition (the current competition specifies haikus in English). If space (or rather, mass) is at a premium, send heroic couplets. Dirty limericks. Whatever. Hell, you are sending poetry to Mars! Why on Earth (yeah, ok, work with me) are you limiting yourself to 3 haikus? Don’t send it because you can, send it because you must–send poetry that belongs on Mars. That’s the way to do it.

Here’s mine. Spirit was the muse, so Spirit should get to read it.

(off topic… I was astonished at how good it felt not to write for a week or so. I honestly don’t know if that is a good or a bad thing. I am not really back yet, but drafts are returned, and final papers aren’t due for a bit, so I may be around for 2-3 days. Or not. I have discovered there is a real world, so I may explore it for a bit. If you are among those who have read this far… thank you for everything you have done for me!)

Science, Science, Science, Science, Penis Size, Science, Etc….

The papers were released online—
They numbered sixty-six—
So, how to make one paper shine?
The writers have their tricks.
A catchy title sure is fine
To pluck you from the mix
A subject could be quite divine,
But leave you in a fix….

See, that one wrote of saving wine,
But this one wrote of dicks.

I’m not a regular reader of PNAS (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), though I probably should be if I had the time… but I ran into a popular press story with a stop-the-presses title: “Science proves women like men with bigger penises.”

Past research has seemed to indicate that women, as a group, are drawn to larger male members. But those results have been disputed as sexist, or scientifically flawed, or both.
So Mautz and his team, working at the Australian National University, designed an experiment in hopes of settling the controversy. They created 49 unique, computer-generated, nude, life-sized male figures. Each figure varied in three traits: height, shoulder-hip ratio and flaccid penis size.

You can find more at the link, or at the other link, or probably by watching the evening news, at this point. I, myself, was amused that this paper, out of 66 that were published in PNAS today, was the one that merited 15 paragraphs at NBC.

My suspicion is that if a paper about penis size was not available, we’d all be reading about how global warming is going to effect wine production. Which it is–just check the other link.

And among 66 papers looking at ape parasites, hippocampal neurons, planetary basalts, noble-metal nanocrystals, antibiotic resistance transfer, and bovine viral diarrhea virus, we had a total of two titles that had potential in the mainstream media (when did I grow so cynical?). On a normal day, wine production would have been enough.

But not when up against penis size.

(BTW, one of my biggest and most reliable sources of hits on the old blog was a post about “the biggest dicks of all“–that is, about the frauds at enzyte who were marketing snake-oil. Hey. Posts about penis size sell. Apparently, even in the science business.)

Writing For The New York Times Isn’t Rocket Science

He made a mean lasagna
And was quite a dad indeed,
But what really made him stand apart
Was how he wrote a lede—

Now, there’s some that lede with puzzles,
And there’s me, that ledes with rhymes
But cheap clichés won’t work
At the respected New York Times

His devotion to his family
Was really quite exciting—
It certainly deserved a place
Ahead of, say, his writing.

He might have written brilliance
In agreement or defiance—
His cooking gets the lede, cos writing
Isn’t rocket science.


She changed the world; she truly lived
A pioneering life…
A rocket engineer, but first—
A mother and a wife.

This afternoon, my twitter feed blew up. The obituary of Yvonne Brill, pioneering rocket scientist, a woman who accomplished astonishing things while overcoming the prejudices of her time… led with this:

She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

Not with her engineering accomplishments, which won her the National Medal of Technology and Innovation (presented to her by president Obama). Not with the propulsion system she invented, which became the industry standard.

Mrs. Brill’s development of a more efficient rocket thruster to keep orbiting satellites in place allowed satellites to carry less fuel and more equipment and to stay in space longer. The thrusters have the delicate task of maneuvering a weightless satellite that can tip the scales at up to 5,000 pounds on Earth.

Mrs. Brill contributed to the propulsion systems of Tiros, the first weather satellite; Nova, a series of rocket designs that were used in American moon missions; the Atmosphere Explorer, the first upper-atmosphere satellite; and the Mars Observer, which in 1992 almost entered a Mars orbit before losing communication with Earth.

From 1981 to 1983, Mrs. Brill worked for NASA developing the rocket motor for the space shuttle. In a statement after Mrs. Brill’s death, Michael Griffin, president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, praised her as “a pioneering spirit” who coupled “a clear vision of what the future of an entire area of systems should be with the ingenuity and genius necessary to make that vision a reality.”

Beef Stroganoff came first.

All the discrimination she overcame? Yeah, I’d have said she was just the exception to the rule… except that maybe she isn’t excepted after all.


Update! It seems even the New York Times cares about social media. The first paragraph has mysteriously changed… now, it reads:

She was a brilliant rocket scientist who followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said.

So, when twitter explodes, the NYTimes listens.

If You Don’t Agree With This, You’re An Idiot

It’s the modern world I live in,
And I use it when I can
I get all my information
From my common, fellow man
I won’t venture an opinion
Till I see what others think—
And I’ll read it all in pixels,
Cos I cannot wait for ink.
Yes, the internet is perfect
When you cannot wait for ink.

Now, some drama is expected
When you get your news online
Where a claim won’t go unchallenged
(And this happens by design)
A democracy of chaos,
Where the hoi polloi will roar—
When the comments are uncivil
I will listen all the more!
Yes, when comments are uncivil
This will bring them to the fore.

There is vitriol aplenty—
It’s a caustic, nasty mess!
Some may strive, perhaps, to educate,
Still others, to impress—
While yet others play a sort of game,
Where points are won or lost
Where truth and reputation are
A portion of the cost
Yes, respect for fact or person
Is a line that’s often crossed!

When the comments are uncivil
They are given much more weight
So the rude and boorish bastards
Hold more sway in the debate—
There’s no need to point to evidence
Or logic, you can tell—
When the comments thrive on rancor
All you have to do is yell.
Yes, the winner (on the internet)
Is he who best can yell.

In today’s New York Times, an editorial that speaks to the current state of news commentary on the interwebs. The editorial comments on a recent article in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, investigating the relative effect of civil vs uncivil commentary (regarding a nanotechnology issue) on participants’ opinions of nanotechnology’s risks vs benefits.

Ok… if you read the NYTimes article the results are “both surprising and disturbing”.

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

But, really… these were not big effects. The sample sizes were large, so significance could be found without really large effects. But… oh, well.

What is strange is that there is no mention in the NYT article of the religious interaction effect. From the paper itself:

Our findings also reveal a significant interaction between religiosity and incivility on risk perception. (beta=-.07;p< .05). Among those exposed to uncivil comments, those with high levels of religiosity were more likely to report higher levels of risk perception and those with low levels of religiosity were more likely to report lower levels of risk perception...

So, yeah… incivility contributes to polarization of positions. Perhaps especially with regard to religious issues. And incivility is a weapon, it appears. Not that it should be, but it is. Incivility and argument should be orthogonal… but it seems, empirically, they are not.

Civility matters, empirically, it seems. And truth matters. And people are more swayed by incivility than by truth, especially where religion is concerned. So… dickishness, on such comment threads, is actually an adaptive trait, contributing to one’s cause?

We are all so screwed.

On Belief

There is a group of people
(they’ll be named before too long)
Who are likely to believe a thing
They’ve just been shown… is wrong.

They’re wrong, it seems, quite often,
But in truth, it brings no shame;
The errors are so commonplace
We’ve given each a name!

There’s type 1 and type 2 error—
The distinction here is this:
The former is a false alarm;
The latter is a miss.

Suppose you find significance
(and do a little dance)
There’s a certain probability
It’s only random chance

Or maybe you find nothing
And you’re pulling out your hair
It’s possible you missed it
But there still is something there!

Belief opposed to evidence
Is faith—or so they say
But scientists (I’ve named the group!)
May do it every day!

At the risk of being misunderstood and quote-mined, I need to address something. I was reminded, by a really bad attempt at taking down “the new atheism”, that there are people who don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to belief. These people exist among the faithful, but also among us godless sorts. And, in part, slight misunderstandings on one hand are jumped upon by opportunists on the other hand (see the really bad attempt for an example) to misrepresent the process of science.

You see, the weird thing is, scientists are not immune to all the belief heuristics that everybody else falls prey to. Scientists want to be right, and will (or may) pay more attention to confirming evidence than disconfirming (when it comes to their own pet theory), will (or may) fall prey to predictable ingroup-outgroup biases, and will (or may) be far more eager to tear apart a competing theory than their own.

The difference between scientists and non-scientists, and the difference between believers and non-believers, isn’t so much in how individuals believe. (I mean, yes it can be, but this is a result of what I am about to say, not a cause.) Rather, it’s a difference in the structure that surrounds them.

The scientific community does not deny the effects of these biases. Rather, it harnesses them. A structure that systematically lets people support their own and tear down others’ ideas (call it “peer review”) harnesses our individual biases for the long-term good of the community. We don’t really need to be self-critical (though some certainly are) when we can set up an environment that will do that for us, systematically and more effectively.

So, yeah, when you are dealing with data that are probabilistic in nature, and when you intentionally and systematically make falsifiable predictions, there will necessarily be times when the data don’t play out the way you expect. And sometimes you will just know that you are right and the data are wrong. And sometimes you will be wrong. And sometimes (the cool thing is, for some of these values, an understanding of probability can let us know fairly well just how often) you will be right, and yes, the data are wrong (the bad news, of course, is that an understanding of probability won’t tell us which times you are right and the data are wrong.

But the scientific community doesn’t care about your pet theory. You can be biased all you want; so are your peers, and some of them want nothing more than to prove you wrong. And you want nothing more than to prove them wrong (and you right). And in the long run, you are crash-testing ideas, and only ideas that can survive the process will survive. In the long run.

There is a similar (well, functionally similar, but not similar in result) structure you can find in religion. Seriously. It’s called “apologetics”, and it is the system’s response to disconfirming data. Rather than rewarding and encouraging the refutation of an apparently bad idea (by others within the scientific community, at least), finding excuses for why the idea actually works is encouraged. (And if you can’t make it work… start a new religion!)

So… people are people. It’s the structures we are part of that allow us to rise above our biases to achieve more collectively than we ever could singly. It’s also the structures we are part of that can fortify our ignorance and make a virtue of non-questioning faith.

Scientists need not be anything special. But science is. And there is no reason to suspect that religious individuals are particularly prone to cognitive biases. But my goodness, religion as an institution (or set of institutions) seems to elevate the bias to an art form. The environments we have created, and which shape us, make us better, or worse, than we would be without them.

And that (as Frost said) has made all the difference.

Believing In Both God And Evolution

You believe in evolution
In this modern Christian day
Though your God was the Creator
Evolution was His way
So you see no contradiction
And you tell me I am wrong
When I say that God and science
Really cannot get along

You believe in evolution
As a Christian, so you say,
And that blind, uncaring Nature
May be altered, if you pray
And the products of selection
Are selected by His hand
You believe in evolution
But you do not understand.

You believe in evolution
And that Eden was a myth
You could see a world without a God,
But still prefer one with
And you think that, maybe, sometimes,
There’s a chance God intervenes
You believe in evolution
But you don’t know what that means.

You believe in evolution
You believe it deep inside
But a sort of evolution
That depends upon a Guide
Are your two beliefs compatible?
You say they are, although,
Since that isn’t evolution
You’re describing… I’d say no.

Over on the HuffPo, MIT physicist Max Tegmark presents some data he and colleagues collected on the compatibility of religion and science, and some comments on the reaction to these data. Today’s article (the latter) focuses on Tegmark’s surprise at getting so much blowback from the atheist community. That’s not the point of my verse, though, and not what I want to talk about.

The problem is not that religious people believe their faith is compatible with their view of evolution (which is what Tegmark’s data clearly show). The problem is that the view of evolution that their faith is compatible with is not evolution by natural selection, but evolution by some sort of guided selection. Evolution that has God pulling the strings, or nudging variables toward a particular goal (oddly human in appearance and behavior), or intervening miraculously to save a life (does praying to get pregnant count as a reproductive strategy?) is not evolution by natural selection.

Change over time is not the defining feature of evolution; the blind and indifferent mechanism is. Tegmark’s data, interpreted as “there is no conflict”, are perhaps more accurately described as “not being aware of the conflict.” Because to the extent that their beliefs include a God that can (and occasionally does) act in the world, their beliefs are incompatible with science. I’ve said it before, it cannot be science when God intervenes.

I can believe my toaster and my bathtub are compatible, and behave accordingly. That doesn’t make it true.