Archive for October, 2012

Here are two memes that seem worth discussing together:

In one case, the message is to make sure we never forget this bad thing that happened. In the other case, the message is to forget what happened and move on. Why the different message?

Is it because 9/11 occurred more recently than slavery? Well, the message is ‘never forget’ not ‘remember until 150 years from now.’ Further, slavery affected more people for a much longer period of time than 9/11 did, so if anything, I’d expect slavery to be something we should remember longer.

I wonder how people would react if we changed the memes a bit:

I suspect people wouldn’t react well to being told to get over 9/11.  In addition, I think a lot of people would be annoyed by a successful black man saying to never forget slavery.

How would people feel about the following meme?

If we have a different reaction to “holocaust get over it” than we do to “slavery get over it,” why is that the case?

I think one factor is who the perpetrator was. Slavery is something that a substantial part of the US population supported, whereas with 9/11 we were attacked by scary foreigners. We want to never forget being attacked by low status others, but we want to quickly forget when members of our high status in-group were the perpetrators.

The other major factor is who the victims are.  If you are part of a lower status group, you will be expected to ‘get over’ bad things that happened to you.  For example, I suspect a low SES woman who was punched by her husband would get less sympathy than would a high SES woman who had the same thing happen to her.  People would probably assume that the low SES victim did things to contribute to it:  drinking, drug use, unstable aggressive behavior, etc.  People would be more likely to think that she should just ‘get over’ her abuse.

It’s similar with slavery.  No matter how much black people are targeted and treated poorly, they are supposed to get over it.

Having sympathy for someone signals that they are part of your in-group.  Saying someone should ‘get over it’ signals that they are not part of your in-group.  As a result, the least powerful people tend to get the least sympathy.

based on conversation with charlene estornell-lewis

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If I notice that a friend of mine has some unusual behavior, something I’ve never seen in anyone else, I have the strong desire to point it out to him/her and discuss it.  I want to know why they do this thing.   

However, I worry that once they realize that what they do is ‘weird,’ they will try to stop doing it.  I do not want to change the person. I love quirky things.  Yet, even if I tell them that I don’t want them to change, it’s hard for a person to not be self-conscious about standing out. 

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Extremely short stories

Recently I have been writing a few extremely short stories per week.  This was inspired by Vonnegut’s brief descriptions of Kilgore Trout stories.   Here are a few:

Beauty.  Like many people, Mindy was unhappy with some of the features of her body.  She was determined to do something about it.  So, Mindy worked overtime whenever she could, and diligently saved until she could finally afford cosmetic surgery.  Today, Mindy’s life has changed, as she no longer has asymmetric kidneys.

Cold.  Tonya Larsen was born with an unfortunate combination of traits.  She experienced emotions extremely intensely.  However, Tonya could only communicate with words.  She had no emotional prosody, couldn’t cry, use hand gestures or vary facial expressions.  People saw her as cold and unfeeling.  She would tell people how much she loved them, how happy she was, or how sad she was, but nobody believed her.  As a result, Tonya never had close friendships, and suffered from the most painful case of loneliness the world has ever known.

Pyramid. Every parent stacks tin cans in a pyramid shape in front of their home.  This makes it extremely easy to identify the good from the bad parents.  Good parents, of course, make sure the cans do not have scratches or dents.  If the wind knocks the cans over, good parents quickly stack them back up.  To encourage good parenting, schools began to offer can stacking classes.

Roomba.  A team of scientists and engineers created a conscious Roomba vacuum.  They designed it so that it would get satisfaction out of keeping the floor clean.  In addition, they wired a button on the side of it to its pleasure center.  It could push the button by bumping into a wall. However, once the button was pushed it would not work again for 24 hours. To the surprise of its creators, the Roomba felt morally obligated to abstain from button pushing.

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Awww, neonate features


If someone approached a person and requested some of his/her resources, the typical response would be to reject the request.  For example, if someone comes to your door and asks for money with nothing in return, you send them away.

Think of this action or whatever action the person took to reject the request as their immune response to a parasite.

In general, many of the most successful, and in my opinion the coolest, parasites have evolved ways to evade the immune response of the host. For example, Trypanosoma brucei is coated with molecules of Variable Surface Glycoprotein (VSG).  The VSG coat ‘shields’ and ‘switches‘ to prevent an effective immune response.

Well, parasites are not the only great hiders. Some organisms are great at exploiting the existing traits of other organisms. Consider that people have evolved to feel protective of babies, and hence are drawn to things that have features similar to neonates.  Small cute animals take advantage of this trait, and are able to gain resources from humans while avoiding the ‘immune response.’ Essentially, pets have used their cuteness to hide from the normal detection that leads humans to send other resource grabbing organisms (other humans asking for money, cockroaches  or other “pests” that try to take from us) away or kill them (e.g., with insecticide).  Since their cuteness is so successful at evading eviction,  they have a symbiotic relationship with the host. Both pet and human consider it a win.


There is also another curious aspect about the friendly, cute animal phenomenon. It occurs to me that animals such as cats, dogs, and ducks are food producers, just like human farmers.   We readily understand that humans produce food primarily based on conscious planning, learning, etc (planting a seed, watering it).  However, pets have managed to do the same thing. We often think about how we use animals, so it is difficult to see how they can use us.  Animals can essentially ‘grow’ food by being cute and friendly. The cuter and friendlier the animal, the more successful they are.  When your dog runs around with excitement when you come home, think of it as watering the seed.  It is ensuring that there will be a bountiful crop this year.

Membrane and Brain Elitists

We do not think of pets as parasites, in part, because they are not contained within our skin membrane.

We do not think of friendly, cute animals as producing food, primarily (IMO), because we give special status to things that were accomplished with cognitive planning.  However, consciousness is just another evolved tool for physical stuff to get what it wants.  Friendliness and cuteness is another way.

I think giving special status to stuff that is within a membrane and to stuff that was created from conscious planning leads to a myopic view of the physical world [I plan to expand this idea into a blog post at some point].

co-written with Charlene Estornell-Lewis

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Motivated ignorance

When I see curbside recycling containers lining the street, I sometimes picture the recyclables being loaded into a recycling truck, and then being taken and dumped in the landfill.  I imagine a world where recycling is too expensive, but cities have separate recycling containers to make people feel good.  And of course, I assume people are happy living in ignorance.

I do wonder how many cities do just that.  I’m sure it’s greater than 0%.  I’ve heard stories from restaurant employees whose job it is to empty the recycling bins into the dumpster out back.

Let’s assume you think recycling is important enough to make the effort to separate trash from recyclables.  Now, suppose you can choose between living in world A and living in world B (described below).  Once you choose a world, you will be placed there, and your memory of having made the choice will be gone.

World A:  All recycling goes to the landfill, but you are unaware of it.  You think your recyclables get recycled.  

World B:  All recycling goes to the landfill, and you are aware of that fact.

In World A you feel good about recycling   You believe you have done something for the environment. 

In World B you know the truth.  So, you can try to do something about it (which will take effort, and might not be successful, but you have the opportunity).

If you really care about the environment, shouldn’t you prefer World B?  But do you care about it more than your own happiness (I’m assuming World A is happier place for you)?

I wonder what most people would choose.

I suspect a lot of people would prefer World A.  

Recycling is a somewhat benign example, but it’s easy to think of examples with more severe consequences. 

While the above is a thought experiment, in reality, people can take steps to make sure they are in the world of their choice.  People who prefer World A, for example, have motivation to avoid unpleasant facts.    

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The Zoo

The area known as Park Hill was a typical urban neighborhood.  Often, some of the residents would spend time together socially, especially the people who had kids.  A common topic of discussion was speculating about the sound that came from Sharon’s house each night.

Sharon was someone who, as far as the neighbors could tell, basically kept to herself.  She lived alone, and would only be seen going to and from her car.  On its own, this would not have gotten her noticed.  However, it was the sound that came from her house that put her on everyone’s radar.  Every night, without exception, a loud, unusual screeching sound could be heard.

People would point to her house and say “Have you heard the strange sound that comes from that house at night? What do you think it is?”  At first there was a wide array of guesses.  Some people suggested that she was listening to some kind of weird music.  Other people guessed that she was building something, and the sound was metal bars rubbing together.  But the answer that made the most sense to everyone, and the answer that was finally settled on, was that she had some kind of exotic animals in her house. It was easy to picture the screeching sound coming from a large bird or coyote.  The only question was, ‘which animal was it?’  The neighbors would keep an eye on the house, hoping to catch a glimpse of an animal through her windows.  They would watch her as she got out of her car, to see if she was carrying anything that looked like bags of pet food.

None of their imaginations were keen enough to picture the reality, which was Sharon curled up in a ball at night as she lie witness to her own body expelling sounds of extreme emotional pain that she herself could not believe were coming from inside her.

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When people make evidence-implied claims, I immediately put it through a first level of screening.

I ask myself “is it likely that any data exist that could provide evidence for or against this claim?”

A lot of evidence-implied claims can be ruled out this way (by ruled out I mean rule out the possibility that the evidence-implied claim is an evidence-based claim).  In some cases it’s rather obvious and in other cases not.  I will discuss several types of examples below.

No possible data – claim meaningless or not (currently) testable

Most of the claims that I reject fall in the category of not being meaningful enough to really test.  The best way to identify these kinds of claims, in my opinion, is to picture counterfactual worlds where the claim is true and where it is false, and see if those worlds look different.

For example, consider the following statement:  “To see a wolf in your dream symbolizes survival, beauty, solitude, mystery, self-confidence and pride.”

A world counterfactual to the one in the statement would be one where seeing a wolf in your dream symbolizes something else (or nothing at all).   Suppose, for example, I said that seeing a wolf in your dreams symbolizes birth, life and vitality.  How could we tell the difference between these counterfactual worlds?  What would it even mean for there to be a right answer about what a dream symbolizes, if we were to assume it symbolized something?

Data could exist, but probably do not

In some cases, I can imagine that data could theoretically exist to test the claim, but probably do not for various reasons (cost, feasibility, lack of interest, etc).

For example, consider the statement: “Did you know that left-handed people who are pulled over for speeding are more likely to just get a warning than right-handed people who are pulled over for speeding?”

It’s easy to imagine how data could be collected to test this claim.  If we had a database from a random sample of people who were pulled over for speeding which included their handedness and the result (warning or ticket), then we could check the claim.  But it’s unlikely that such data exist, because (a) handedness is not routinely recorded; (b) it’s not easy to even get data on warnings vs. tickets.  Thus, direct data probably do not exist.

It’s possible that they have indirect evidence in favor of the claim.  For example, maybe there is evidence that handedness is related to personality traits such as persuasiveness, likability, etc. and that these personality traits affect the likelihood of getting a warning.  However, there are several steps in this causal chain that would need to be true, and it wouldn’t be surprising that, if they were true, they all had small effects.  It is also pretty unlikely that there is strong evidence for all of the links in the chain.

So I would conclude that the claim is very likely not evidence-based.

Another example:  “It’s healthiest to eat fruit in the morning and vegetables in the evening.”

I can imagine a world where we randomize people to different diets, including one where people eat fruit in the morning and vegetables in the evening.  The above claim would still be a little difficult to evaluate, because it is not very specific.  It might depend on what else you’re eating and how much (and which types) of fruit and vegetables you’re eating.  But those concerns aside, I am pretty confident that this is not something that we have very good data for right now.  It seems very unlikely that this is a question that would have been investigated in a trial.  It is also unlikely that observational nutrition studies include information about the timing of when fruits and vegetables are consumed.

Again, it’s possible that the person making the claim is basing it on indirect evidence.  Perhaps they have a theoretical model in their head, of which some of the mechanisms are evidence-based.  Again, however, it’s very unlikely that all of the steps in their mechanistic model have been evaluated.

So I would conclude that the claim is very likely not evidence-based.

Data probably exist, but unreliable

There are a lot of claims for which there is evidence, but the evidence might have a high risk of being biased.  I think that most observational behavioral studies, for example, are of high risk for having enough unmeasured confounding to substantially bias inference.

This category is more subjective than the other two, but speculating about the likely strength of the evidence seems useful.

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