Berkeley meetup report

We didn’t think to take any photos that I know of, so I’ll have to make do with an image to capture the gist of the meetup at the Jupiter in Berkeley on Wednesday.

Artist's impression

Artist’s impression

Known hordelings in attendance were Ron Sullivan and her celebrated trophy husband Joe Eaton, robro, moarscienceplz and a lovely gentleman whose real name I caught but whose posting name remains a mystery to me, so I’ll let him decide whether to announce that he was there and bought me a beer. (Thank you.)

There was also someone who came by the table and asked whether any of us was PZ. I jovially identified myself as PZ-lite, and he left in a hurry before anyone could clarify. If that was you,

  • I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer, because we’d very likely have enjoyed your company, and
  • Dude. Read the bylines.

Also in attendance were a few other good friends from various sections of the last 35 years of my life, and it was an incongruous but simpatico mix of people. It was too bad that Andrew Alden couldn’t stay longer, but he had a geologists’ meeting to run off to, and several in attendance didn’t get a chance to meet him. But you can all still read his geology blog.

I did have a moment of something like terror when I mentioned the BBC show QI and no one there had heard of it.  You can no longer say that. Here’s the first episode of Series 1. There are 10 years of QI so far. See you later.

Taking the wonder back

Oh, how I hate this stupid question:

Many popular scientists are atheist, so why are they so happy to use the misty-eyed language of religion?

Check your assumptions, journalist. Why do you associate feelings of wonder and awe with fucking religion? Look at the stuff she quotes from prominent scientists: it has nothing to do with religion, except that religion has spent millennia appropriating these ideas.

It’s ironic that the public engagement with the science crowd is so pro-wonder, because they’re so anti-religion. "All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation," writes Richard Dawkins. "And it’s exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe – almost worship – this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder, that modern science can provide."

"I’m an atheist," said maths professor Marcus du Sautoy when he took up the Charles Simonyi chair in the public understanding of science at Oxford. "But for me the important thing is the wonder of science." Advocates for science can’t seem to give up on religion’s selling points: the awe, transcendence, and worship.

Notice what the godbots have managed to do: they have taken a child’s delight in the natural world, stolen it, and said, “Awe belongs to god; you aren’t thrilled with dandelion fluff, stars in the sky, or the leap of an antelope, you’re really feeling ecstasy at gods and the supernatural.”

That’s a lie. The scientists are taking back a stolen joy and placing it where it belongs: in our universe, in our natural world, in us. The journalists should be asking instead how we got so duped that we take it for granted that we’re worshipping an invisible man when we find happiness in a clear warm sky and the scent of grass on the wind and a calm sense of our place on Earth.

That isn’t the language of religion. The language of religion is dominion, tribalism, ignorance, and fear.

Be gentle, sweet, and kind

One of these trolls — in this case, one populating the #WISCFI twitter hashtag for the Women in Secularism conference — threw out a recommendation to all the ladies out there: 8 Easy Tips to Act More Feminine. It’s not clear whether this person was being cynical, mocking, or serious, but at least we can all concur that he was being stupid.

Here are the 8 tips summarized. Please, control your temper (tips #4, 5, 6, and 8).

  1. Dress feminine.

  2. Brush up on your manners.

  3. Smile often.

  4. Be gentle, sweet, and kind.

  5. Do not use abusive words.

  6. Do not speak bluntly.

  7. Be sensitive.

  8. Control your temper.

Man, what a waste of space. I can reduce those all to just one: be submissive, pliant, and pleasant to men. At least it’s not as long-winded as someone’s civility rules, even if it amounts to the same thing.

By the way, I hope something is done about the #WISCFI hashtag before the conference. Right now it’s just a flaming ground for trolling assholes.

We are the WEIRD

Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, that is. One of the common complaints about evolutionary psychology is that it claims to be addressing evolved human universals, but when you look at the data sets, they are almost always drawn from the same tiny pool of outliers, Western undergraduate students enrolled in psychology programs, and excessively extrapolated to be representative of Homo sapiens — when we’re actually a very peculiar group.

How peculiar? A paper by Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World”, tries to measure that…and by nearly every standard they looked at, the wealthy inhabitants of democratic western societies are not exactly normal (that is, they’re far from average in ways both good and bad and value neutral).

Who are the people studied in behavioral science research? A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub‐disciplines of Psychology from 2003‐2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett 2008). The make‐up of these samples appears to largely reflect the country of residence of the authors, as 73% of first authors were at American universities, and 99% were at universities in Western countries. This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population. Put another way, a randomly selected American is 300 times more likely to be a research participant in a study in one of these journals than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

It’s even worse: “67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses”.

That wouldn’t be so bad if we were examining traits that were truly universal, or if we had a better understanding of exactly what properties were unusual and derived. Fruit flies are also real oddball organisms, but we can still learn a lot from taking them apart…as long as we don’t simply pretend that people and mice and beetles and clams are all just like flies. Lab rats have their place, but understanding the bigger picture needs more diversity.

So it is possible that maybe the results aren’t significantly biased by sampling error if there weren’t much variation anyway. Unfortunately for the psychological universalists, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The paper describes many differences between cultures, some of which one might be willing to argue are fairly superficial: some societies have homosexual activities as an important step in the rituals of becoming a man, for instance, and while many of us might find that uncomfortable, we can see a range of sexual preferences even within the WEIRD group. But others violate properties I’ve always taken for granted.


For instance, in neuroscience and psychology you’ll see this optical illusion all the time, the Mueller-Lyer illusion. The two lines are exactly the same length, but we perceive them as longer or shorter depending on the direction of the arrows.

Wait, “we”? Yeah, I do, most of you readers probably do too, and every time I’ve seen this illusion in the text books it’s presented as a fait accompli — but of course you will see this dramatic illustration of how the brain processes visual stimuli!

Only, they don’t. The magnitude of the effect is culture-dependent. In a series of tests in which the lines were adjusted until the viewer saw them as equal in length, different groups saw different things. The WEIRD group needed one line extended a great deal before they saw them as equal; the African San scarcely saw the illusion at all.

Mueller‐Lyer Results for Segall et. al.’s cross‐cultural project. PSE is the percentage that segment ‘a’ must be longer than ‘b’ before individuals perceive them as equal.

The paper goes through multiple examples of this kind of variable phenomena: economic decision making (not everyone thinks like a trader), biological reasoning (Western people are marked by a deep ignorance of other organisms), spatial cognition (how do you see yourself and others relative to landmarks?), and the individual’s relationship to society. They also identify properties that do seem to be common across populations…and that’s the nub of the argument here.

No one is denying that there are almost certainly deep commonalities between all members of our species. But there are also phenomena that are much more fluid, and sometimes those phenomena are so deeply ingrained in contemporary culture that we assume that they must be human universals — we assume our personal differences and biases must be shared by all right-thinking, decent human beings. But you can’t know that until you look, and your personal prejudices do not count as data.

It takes hard work to identify the real common threads of our humanity, and it can be rewarding to see which bits of our identity are actually superficial, not an essential part of our generally human self. The authors advocate more care in interpretation and wider empirical research.

Many radical versions of cultural relativity deny any shared commonalities in human psychologies across populations. To the contrary, we expect humans from all societies to share, and probably share substantially, basic aspects of cognition, motivation, and behavior. As researchers who see much value in applying evolutionary thinking to psychology and behavior, we have little doubt that if a full accounting were taken across all domains among peoples past and present, that the number of similarities would indeed be large, as much ethnographic work suggests (e.g., Brown 1991)—ultimately, of course, this is an empirical question. Thus, our thesis is not that humans share few basic psychological properties or processes; rather we question our current ability to distinguish these reliably developing aspects of human psychology from more developmentally, culturally, or environmentally contingent aspects of our psychology given the disproportionate reliance on WEIRD subjects. Our aim here, then, is to inspire efforts to place knowledge of such universal features of psychology on a firmer footing by empirically addressing, rather than dismissing or ignoring, questions of population variability.

Perspective is needed. The ridiculous bias in most psychology studies might be unavoidable — not every undergraduate psychology can afford to fly to deepest Uganda or the Chinese hinterlands to broaden the cultural background of their research — but we could at least have greater caution in claiming breadth. I thought this suggestion was amusing:

Arnett (2008) notes that psychologists would surely bristle if journals were renamed to more accurately reflect the nature of their samples (e.g., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of American Undergraduate Psychology Students). They would bristle, presumably, because they believe that their findings would broadly generalize. Of course, there are important exceptions to this general tendency as some researchers have assembled a broad database to provide evidence for universality (e.g., Buss 1989, Daly & Wilson 1988, Tracy & Matsumoto 2008).

I don’t think the specificity of that journal title would diminish its interest, and it would be a heck of a lot more accurate. We already have specialty science journals for Drosophila, zebrafish, nematodes, etc., so why not give the American Undergraduate Psychology Students the recognition they deserve as a standard model organism?

(via The Pacific Standard)

Me and my warlike ways

I’ve always wanted to trigger an international incident, and I guess I got my wish: I unleashed the Horde on Canada. Last week I brought to your attention a poll on abortion by a conservative Canadian MP. You all rushed in and surprised him by bringing in a strongly pro-choice position; he has since rallied the Canadian religious right (or more likely, tweaked a few numbers in the polling software) to produce a lead for the side wanting a complete ban on abortion.

You know the phrase “complete ban on abortion” is impractical, dishonest, and totalitarian, and can only be achieved over the bodies of dead women, right?

Anyway, it’s written up now by Windsor Star columnist Anne Jarvis. The Canadian government doesn’t want to debate abortion at all, and most Canadians are quite content with the current liberal legislation on reproductive rights. What this is is a game by conservatives to gin up the impression that there’s a serious argument being held among the electorate, rather than that there are a few authoritarian cranks lobbying for new laws to oppress women.

It’s what they all do. It’s exactly like the creationists saying we need to argue the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, when no, we do not: the matter has been settled, and only kooks are arguing against the right idea.