Jun 06 2017

The Mechanism of Substitution Heuristic

Kahneman-TverskyHuman thinking is complicated. I further find it ironic that we find it so difficult to think about our own thinking. The reason for this is that we are not aware of all of the processes that go into the workings of our own minds. When you think about it, that makes sense. If we had to monitor the mechanisms by which we process information, and then monitor that monitoring, we would use a lot of mental energy in a potentially endless loop of self inspection. This could easily become paralyzing.

So mostly we engage is automatic subconscious problem solving, which uses simplified algorithms to produce decisions which are fast and good enough, absent awareness of what those algorithms are. When we have the luxury for more introspection we can indulge in some analytical thinking as a check on our intuitions.

Added to this, we have made our own world incredibly complex. In a way we have overwhelmed our own intuitions (what psychologists call system 1 thinking). We are fumbling through complex technological and scientific questions involving a world-spanning civilization with a brain evolved for a much smaller and simpler world. This means we need to rely much more heavily on system 2 thinking – careful analytical thinking. This involves metacognition, or thinking about how we think.

Psychologists Kahneman and Tversky have arguably had the most dramatic effect on the study of decision making starting in 1979. They put forward the whole notion of cognitive biases and heuristics, or mental shortcuts we substitute for careful analytical thought. 

The Mechanism of Substitution

I have written about many such biases and heuristic here over the years, and here is a new one – the mechanism of substitution. Actually, it is not very new, but rather a different way of looking at existing biases. It is more of a mechanism for biases and heuristics rather than one itself. At it’s core the idea is simple, when confronted with a complex problem we substitute a simpler problem we can answer and then go with that answer.

A great example of this is the availability heuristic. The question – how common is this phenomenon, is complex to answer. We would have to survey a lot of objective information in order to really answer it, with proper controls and representative samples. This is too much work, so we intuitively substitute a far simpler question – how easy is it for me to think of an example of this phenomenon? If an example readily comes to mind, we conclude the phenomenon is common. If we can’t think of an example, we conclude it is rare.

This shortcut is reasonable in many circumstances and is an indicator of how common something is. You can also see how much more effective this heuristic would be if your entire world consisted of a tribe of 300 people who never traveled more than 20 miles from their village. In our modern world, not so much.

You can also see in this example how substituting a simpler question is a mechanism for a specific heuristic. Further, it demonstrates how our brains prioritize efficiency, which is primarily gained through simplifying processes.

You could go through many of the biases and heuristics and see this mechanism at work. We have a left-most digit bias. When estimating how large a number is, we focus on the left-most digit. That is why items are often priced at $19.95 – we really do look at the “1” and are partly fooled by this.

We see this mechanism at work in marketing and consumer thinking about complex technologies. For a time computers were marketed based largely on their processor speed, as if this one number was a good representation of overall power. Digital cameras are often marketed with megapixels as the one measure of quality.

When asked to predict how a person or system will behave in the future (including ourselves) we tend to substitute the complex problem of considering many possible variables with the simple question of – how do we feel, or how is the system behaving right now? We have a huge bias to extrapolate current trends into the future, because it is a far simpler question to answer than one in which we consider all the factors that can disrupt current trends.

Analogies often work by this mechanism. When asked a question about a complex phenomenon, we search for an analogy to a known phenomenon and then shift the question to the known analogy, even if it doesn’t quite work.

The problem isn’t that we use analogies or heuristics to inform our decision making. That is perfectly reasonable and likely effective. The problem comes from substituting our analogies and heuristics for analytical thinking about the actual question we are confronting.

Substituting easy questions for hard ones is also just one part of a more general phenomenon of oversimplification. Again – I think vertebrate brains are fundamentally organized to prioritize efficiency, making quick judgments that are mostly true. What matters is the resulting behavior and how adaptive it is, and it’s easy to see how the trade-off between accuracy and speed would be optimized. Simplifying problems to manageable analogies is not a bad strategy overall, as long as we don’t confuse our simplistic analogies for reality.

Another example of oversimplification is reliance on simple narratives to explain the world. We not only substitute simple question for more difficult ones, we substitute simple answers for more complex ones. We tend to develop narratives that have apparent explanatory power, and then overuse those few simple narrative to explain a complex messy world.

For example, “natural is better” is one such narrative.  Navigating all the complex and shifting scientific evidence, government regulations, and marketing claims in order to figure out what is best for our health can be overwhelming. It is far simpler to go with an easy narrative – anything natural is better.

Conspiracy thinking also serves this role – all the complex details of reality can be explained by invoking a grand conspiracy, which can accommodate any evidence.

Political parties are essentially institutionalized strategies for oversimplifying the world. Political parties have ideologies, which are a limited set of principles that guide decision-making and priorities. If you are a libertarian, than liberty is everything.  If you are a progressive liberal than egality is everything. Applying this one filter to all political questions is clarifying. Forget about balancing various legitimate principles that are at odds with each other, that results in the “mushy middle” or “accommodationist” thinking. Stay true to your one principle.

Of course, even that is an oversimplification of human behavior. People are multifarious beings with a host of complex motivations and beliefs. But there is a clear tendency to oversimplify, and this tendency leads to biased thinking that diverges from reality.

This is why people can so vehemently disagree about what should be factual questions. They are applying different filters, heuristics, and narratives.

 

 

 

60 responses so far

60 Responses to “The Mechanism of Substitution Heuristic”

  1. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 9:32 am

    Forget about balancing various legitimate principles that are at odds with each other, that results in the “mushy middle” or “accommodationist” thinking. Stay true to your one principle.”

    Political values are an expression of your individual personality. There doesn’t need to be any conflict between recognizing the complexity of the world around you and staying true to yourself.

    You seem to take any opportunity you can to equivocate between liberalism and legalism in an attempt to implicitly promote your own brand of Milquetoast utilitarian humanism as a putative post-ideological alternative. I, for one, am not fooled.

  2. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 9:36 am

    Reality doesn’t compromise. Nor shall I in pursuit of the best life possible.

  3. BBBlueon 06 Jun 2017 at 11:01 am

    Jason- Was it your intention to illustrate Steven’s point?

  4. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 11:43 am

    Those who think they have ideology scientifically solved are the worst kind of ideologues of all.

  5. Lightnotheaton 06 Jun 2017 at 12:14 pm

    Yep, Steven is worse than a Nazi or ISIS supporter…

  6. mumadaddon 06 Jun 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Jason,

    “Those who think they have ideology scientifically solved are the worst kind of ideologues of all.”

    In your view is the psychology of ideology beyond the scope if science to investigate? And is there a better framework to explain ideology within than human psychology?

  7. mumadaddon 06 Jun 2017 at 12:40 pm

    Jason,

    “Those who think they have ideology scientifically solved are the worst kind of ideologues of all.”

    In your view is the psychology of ideology beyond the scope *of* science to investigate? And is there a better framework to explain ideology within than human psychology?

    * Android updated and now my phone corrects ‘of ‘ to ‘if ‘. Every. Damn. Time.

  8. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 1:08 pm

    mumadadd-

    In theory, of course not. Jordan Peterson does so exceptionally well. The field of political psychology is in practice, however, highly corrupt. Its leftist practitioners treat right-of-center views as some sort of aberration that requires scientific explanation, because of course “normal” people love government intrusion. It’s arrant hubris. And they wonder why Trump won.

    I wasn’t actually referring to political psychology by that quote. Another way I could have put it is:

    “Everyone is an ideologue whether or not he wants to admit it. People who believe in such thing as an objectively scientific post-ideology are the worst ideologues of all.”

    Sam Harris and his “science of morality” comes to mind. Moral and political ideology derive from individual and cultural values, which are subjective. While certain values are common enough to be considered universal, the relative magnitudes of such values felt by different groups and individuals vary significantly. The conceit of a one-size-fits-all objectively “scientific” ideology is at best naive and at worst totalitarian.

  9. mumadaddon 06 Jun 2017 at 1:13 pm

    Jason,

    “The conceit of a one-size-fits-all objectively “scientific” ideology is at best naive and at worst totalitarian.”

    I don’t think Steve, or any here, is asserting such a conceit.

  10. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 1:21 pm

    lightnotheat-

    If the “scientific” policies Steve supports were implemented worldwide many more people would die for want of affordable energy than have ever died at the hands of Nazis or jihadists.

  11. Lightnotheaton 06 Jun 2017 at 1:28 pm

    So, sounds like you are agreeing with the absolutely ludicrous idea that Steven is worse than Nazis and jihadists. You and Egnor should team up.

  12. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 1:39 pm

    mumadadd-

    If you read my first post (apologies for forgetting to close the blockquote) you’ll see that I pointed out how Steve asserts it implicitly in his posturing as a non/post ideologue. He seems to think that supporting a mixture of liberty and slavery, of prosperity and poverty, of justice and venality, is somehow enlightened because “science.”

    If your ideology is utilitarianism, admit it, then define what utility means to you, how to measure it and specify the parameter you’re trying to optimize. Just stop condescendingly implying that ideologies that happen to differ from yours are somehow simplistically benighted by comparison.

  13. MosBenon 06 Jun 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Care to be more specific on the types of policies that Steve is allegedly proposing? I’ve followed your comments in the last few days, and on none of those posts was Steve endorsing a specific policy agenda that I can tell, other than the general “We should vaccinate kids” and “We should try to avoid causing a sixth extinction”. You’re making an awful lot of assumptions, both about Steve and about those of us engaging with you.

  14. RickKon 06 Jun 2017 at 2:02 pm

    Jason said: “Its leftist practitioners treat right-of-center views as some sort of aberration that requires scientific explanation, because of course “normal” people love government intrusion. It’s arrant hubris. And they wonder why Trump won.”

    OMG, you’re doing PRECISELY what Steve just blogged about. You apply a heuristic called “leftist” or “liberal” and then paint over huge swaths of complex individuals. And to support your argument, you quote Steve’s example of a heuristic used by Progressives as supporting your argument. Yet Steve intentionally used an example of simplified thinking by a group with which he identifies!

    Jason, take a breath. The entirety of the world’s problems do not boil down to energy policy and fossil fuels, and anybody who is “left of center” is not a big government robot. I’m sure it is not your intention to prove Steve’s point by providing a striking and shining example, so you should stop doing so.

  15. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 2:35 pm

    MosBen:

    From the Sixth Extinction thread Steve wrote:

    The estimate of health care costs is what current fossil fuel use is actually costing, 100 billion per year in the US alone.

    …make all energy production pay their fair share of any externalized costs.

    He’s calling for a $100 billion per year tax on cheap, plentiful reliable energy. 85% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. The $100B externality the greenies in the EPA task force calculated is total BS. The side-effects of hydrocarbon use are mild, manageable and in some cases benign. Our entire civilization depends on fossil fuels and there are no scalable substitutes other than nuclear, which Steve and I both support. Steve doesn’t propose any offsetting reductions in other taxes either. Energy is the stuff of life. Restrictions on energy use is an assault on life itself. So when anyone calls for such draconian measures they’re going to hear a real remonstrance from anyone with a modicum of common sense.

  16. MosBenon 06 Jun 2017 at 2:43 pm

    As Rickk pointed out, Jason, you continue to prove the point of this post. Maybe you need to re-read it.

  17. Lightnotheaton 06 Jun 2017 at 3:01 pm

    Jason,

    In addition to indulging in the simplistic strawmanning RickK alluded to, you are doing what so many critics of skepticism do in this forum: you start with a relatively reasonable premise but then take it way too far.

    I have no problem with the premise that skeptics are ideologues too, and should acknowledge it. I’d also agree that the issue shouldn’t be framed as “us non-ideological scientific guys vs. you biased ideologues.” But to say that being in some denial of one’s own ideology or insufficiently aware of it is worse than, say, advocating putting people in gas chambers or burning them alive, is an absurd overreach.

  18. Steven Novellaon 06 Jun 2017 at 3:42 pm

    Jason,

    You are indeed nicely demonstrating exactly what I was writing about. You have your narrative, and you are desperately trying to shoehorn me into that narrative, even if you have to make tons of unsupported assumptions, shred the principle of charity, and lay waste to an army of straw men. It is quite the spectacle. ME would be proud.

    I never said I think I don’t have an ideology. I do – I have values and preferences. But part of my ideology is to be as evidence-based and fair as possible, which limits the reality distortion inherent to most ideologies.

    Also, if you read my writing regularly you may notice a theme – that cognitive biases of all kinds apply to everyone, even me, even skeptics – everyone. I never state or even imply that they only apply to others or to specific positions. I also make a specific effort to use a variety of examples of cognitive biases at work,and in this very post I used both libertarian and progressives specifically for such balance.

    You wrote: “He seems to think that supporting a mixture of liberty and slavery, of prosperity and poverty, of justice and venality, is somehow enlightened because “science.””

    Massive strawman there. Also, wonderful demonstration of how a narrative controls your thinking through framing. I don’t advocate for balancing liberty and slavery, but we do have to balance liberty with egality. See the difference? There are legitimate and valid ethical principles that are sometimes at cross purposes and we need to balance them. We can’t have a society that is 100% free and 100% safe. We can argue about where to draw the line, but it is folly to say that only freedom matters, and all other concerns are slavery.

  19. Steven Novellaon 06 Jun 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Regarding fossil fuel, I am also on record there as well, so you don’t have to make your biased inferences or rely upon what I did not say.

    Fossil fuel is not cheap. It is only relatively cheap if you ignore externalized costs. What makes the most sense is that we consider the entire cost of any energy option to all of society, both now and into at least the near future. Ignoring hidden costs does not make one option cheap.

    You are further assuming that people have the right to pollute the environment, and that any restriction on that freedom or requirement to pay for the societal costs of such pollution is an infringement. I don’t think that is a rational or practical position.

    I never specifically advocated for any policy that would cause austerity or would harm anyone. Never. You are just applying your “liberal bogeyman filter” to what I actually am saying.

    What I have written in the past is that we need to focus on the win-wins. If we develop renewable energy, that will have lots of benefit, including making energy cheaper. Solar is already crossing over to parity (depending on certain variables) and at its current rate of incremental advance will soon be the most cost effective energy. Meanwhile we need nuclear to maintain our baseload, while we develop more energy storage infrastructure to handle intermittent energy supplies.

    We can do this without raising energy prices, without harming anyone, while actually helping people by reducing health care costs, and reducing climate change costs. There are also a lot of gains to be made from energy efficiency – where everyone wins.

    What I have specifically advocated for is to stop giving fossil fuels an unfair advantage by allowing them to ignore certain costs. Further, let’s invest in the energy of the future to bring it here a little quicker to minimize the impact of pollution and climate change.

    I’m sorry if that reality does not comport with your simplistic narrative.

  20. Andreason 06 Jun 2017 at 4:18 pm

    As Steven is surely aware, several other well-known cognitive biases can be interpreted as mental short cuts based on the substitution strategy:

    – conformity bias: substitute others’ opinion for your own reasoning
    – confirmation bias: substitute the result of a prior decision making process for reevaluating the evidence anew

    Of course these biases have other motivations as well, such as social approval and self-worth affirmation.

  21. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 4:23 pm

    I don’t advocate for balancing liberty and slavery, but we do have to balance liberty with egality. See the difference?

    Human capability is hugely unequal. If by egality you mean equality of outcome, the only way to fully achieve this is to kill everyone. That’s basically what the Khmer Rouge regime did in Cambodia. You probably mean equality of opportunity but there is little practical difference because outcomes for parents strongly influence opportunities for children. So “egality” is in fact slavery.

    We can’t have a society that is 100% free and 100% safe.

    Now who’s strawmanning? We can achieve a society that is by definition maximally free and safe by banning the initiation of force from human relationships. And yes, genuine pollution is an initiation of force. You haven’t presented a scrap of compelling evidence on this blog, however, that CO2 is a pollutant. All you do is cite environmentalist advocacy research and appeal to non-existent scientific consensus that the climate is sensitive to CO2 to such a degree that justifies massive restrictions on hydrocarbon use.

    Why won’t you read the copyThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels that I bought for you? Why won’t you interview Alex Epstein? What are you so afraid of? That you, Dr. Steven Novella, saint of the so-called skeptical movement, might be wrong for once in your life? Alex changed my mind about fossil fuels and climate change, and I demand a very high level of quality evidence before changing my mind on any major issue. At least give him a chance to change yours.

    http://industrialprogress.com/contact/

  22. Steven Novellaon 06 Jun 2017 at 4:46 pm

    jason wrote: “You probably mean equality of opportunity but there is little practical difference because outcomes for parents strongly influence opportunities for children. So “egality” is in fact slavery.”

    Wow – nice non sequitur. I guess that makes it really easy for you. Only one ethical principle to worry about. Don’t make any efforts to provide an even playing field because it won’t be perfect (Nirvana fallacy, BTW).

    You wrote: “Now who’s strawmanning? We can achieve a society that is by definition maximally free and safe by banning the initiation of force from human relationships. ”

    What? Did you just accuse me of strawmanning then agree with my statement? This is also simply wrong. Safety is more than safety from deliberate violence. Speed limits are a limit on freedom. And are you just assuming that “banning” something makes it happen? How are you going to enforce the ban?

    Regarding CO2 as a “pollutant” you are just trying to use language to confuse. There is absolutely a consensus of scientific evidence that releasing previously sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere makes it part of the CO2 cycle, and increases greenhouse gas effect and global temperatures. If your denial of this fact is the entire pillar of this recent rant of your, then your position is resting on quicksand.

  23. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 5:19 pm

    Your position on energy policy appears to based on the EPA’s social cost of carbon estimate. Would you change your mind if this estimate were shown to be wrong? I have here an alternative estimate from the Reason Foundation:

    http://reason.org/files/social_costs_of_regulating_carbon.pdf

    The Reason Foundation is pro free market. The EPA is anti free-market. This says nothing about who’s right. Let’s compare the estimates and see for ourselves.

  24. Lightnotheaton 06 Jun 2017 at 5:21 pm

    More strawmanning. When did Steven say he’s never wrong? When did he say we must achieve 100% equality?

  25. BillyJoe7on 06 Jun 2017 at 5:27 pm

    “There is absolutely a consensus of scientific evidence that releasing previously sequestered CO2 into the atmosphere makes it part of the CO2 cycle, and increases greenhouse gas effect and global temperatures. If your denial of this fact is the entire pillar of this recent rant of your, then your position is resting on quicksand”

    I don’t think he denies this fact. On the contrary, he thinks increasing CO2 is beneficial and that the fossil fuel industry should be congratulated for their largesse. 😀

    Jason is a climate change denier meaning that his position is not resting on quicksand, but sinking in it.

  26. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 6:00 pm

    In this context; my position is that of Dilbert’s:

    http://dilbert.com/strip/2017-05-14

  27. Lightnotheaton 06 Jun 2017 at 6:34 pm

    At least two straw men in that comic strip. As usual, the denialist theme that scientists are so biased that they will, en masse, cherry pick climate and economic models they like, with no one but the denialists noticing that they are doing so..

  28. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Many of those who depend on the government’s dime do in fact do this.

  29. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 6:46 pm

    Here’s documentation:

    Tomas Havranek, Zuzana Irsova, Karel Janda and David Zilberman,
    “Selective Reporting and
    the Social Cost of Carbon,” published online, February 19, 2015, Available at:
    http://meta-analysis.cz/scc/

  30. Jasonon 06 Jun 2017 at 6:56 pm

    The above is for the economic models. For the climate models see

    John C. Fyfe, Nathan P. Gillett and Francis W. Zwiers, “Overestimated global warming over
    the past 20 years,”
    Nature Climate Change
    , Vol. 3, September 2013, pp. 767

    769.

  31. chikoppion 06 Jun 2017 at 10:48 pm

    [Jason] Here’s documentation: Tomas Havranek, Zuzana Irsova, Karel Janda and David Zilberman, “Selective Reporting and the Social Cost of Carbon,” published online, February 19, 2015

    https://andthentheresphysics.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/publication-bias/

    Do read the extended discussion in the comments section.

  32. Sarahon 07 Jun 2017 at 12:03 am

    Wow. I have more reason to feel betrayed by Dilbert than before.

  33. BillyJoe7on 07 Jun 2017 at 12:18 am

    Just remembered…Jason is Atlantic Idol…so we’ve been through all this before.

  34. Jasonon 07 Jun 2017 at 9:38 am

    chikoppi:

    I read the post. While it may be true that identifying publication bias in climate sensitivity papers doesn’t define any “true” range of such sensitivity; the blogger makes a bare assertion that estimates averaging 3C are more physically plausible than the lower estimates. The Lewis and Curry estimate of a median 1.64C was computed so as better minimize distortions in the temperature record due to aerosol emissions than any previous paper. Is this an unreasonable input to use an SCC model? I scanned the comment section; from what I gather publication bias is not the only possible explanation for the funnel effect the blogger describes in the distribution of SCC estimates. So I will concede that such bias is not proven. There are a couple of other papers on such bias however, that the Reason Foundation review references.

    The Reason review compares the projections of three SCC models and their underlying assumptions. Of the three, I find the FUND model most plausible, particularly in its accounting for benefits of warming at low to medium sensitivities and dynamic adaptation. Which model do you think is best and why?

  35. chikoppion 07 Jun 2017 at 10:51 am

    [Jason] The Reason review compares the projections of three SCC models and their underlying assumptions. Of the three, I find the FUND model most plausible, particularly in its accounting for benefits of warming at low to medium sensitivities and dynamic adaptation. Which model do you think is best and why?

    My opinion is garbage. In part because I’m neither an economist nor a physicist specializing in climate research, but also because the various SCC models compound the degree of unknowns in each field. Any model is going to have an inherent degree of uncertainty, due to economics as much if not more than as due to physics.

    I found this a useful primer:

    https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/stock/files/role_of_integrated_assessment_models.pdf

    The variation across models is particularly striking. The estimates from the FUND model are considerably lower on average reflecting lower damages at all temperature levels (at least in the 2010 analysis; see figures 1A and 1B). While the 2013 update does not provide information about damages as a function of temperature change, the FUND model consistently provides lower estimates of damages at any percentile for each scenario‐discount rate combination. By taking simple averages across models and economic scenarios, the Interagency Working Group took no position on the relative merits of competing models or the likelihood of differing economic scenarios, an issue to which we return below.

  36. Jasonon 07 Jun 2017 at 11:11 am

    I respect that. I think the world in general and climate science in particular would be much better off if people would acknowledge the limits of their understanding and what they’re qualified to opine on. I’m not a professional economist but I do have a master’s degree in finance so I am conversant in much of the terminology used in the SCC papers. I find it objectionable when climate scientists abuse their authority in a specialized physical discipline in making policy prescriptions without economic expertise to understand the trade-offs such policies entail. I appreciate your willingness to engage on what is for most laypersons the crux of the climate issue.

  37. Pete Aon 07 Jun 2017 at 11:21 am

    Jason wrote (on 06 Jun 2017 at 6:00 pm): “In this context; my position is that of Dilbert’s: [URL]”.

    My response:

    “#Dilbert does office politics. Unfortunately, Scott Adams, the guy who draws the strip is not only a rather vocal Trump supporter, but he is also a science denier.”
    http://www.skeptical-science.com/bloggers/dilbert-goes-full-climate-denial-in-latest-strip/

    Scott Adams (born 1957) is a ‘trained hypnotist'[3] and cartoonist known for Dilbert, a long-running satirical comic strip about a white-collar office worker in America. His blog, which is currently a fascinating study of a man going insane,[4] attracted some major media attention during the 2016 election. Long before that, he advanced a number of crank positions, including questioning evolution and the validity of the fossil record.”
    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Scott_Adams

  38. steve12on 07 Jun 2017 at 11:30 am

    Stopped commenting, but can’t resist offering a few observations…

    1. Is there any better example of projection than the seemingly invariant habit of *extreme libertarians calling others ideologues?

    2. Is it purely a coincidence that extreme libertarians embrace a “model” of human interaction that is sufficiently simple as to be meaningless, AND that they speak of it in vague and sweeping literary themes such as you’d read in an introductory literature course?

    I think the answer to both is no.

    Of course, I could have picked out errors in Jason’s reasoning – like confusing the vociferousness of one’s belief in a given system with the perceived extremity along some ideological continuum, as if the magnitude of the two reflect remotely the same thing (see “mushy” comment above). But the above-stated are my favs because all of the Rand types espouse this nonsense in a similar fashion, and it amuses me.

    I really wish we could get over extreme libertarianism, and recognize that with 7B people on the planet its “solutions” are a moral philosophy masquerading as a political system. Beyond being too simple to work, extreme libertarianism can be defined thusly: the anachronistic notion that tyranny can only come from governments.

    How quaint! How appropriate to the time period during which it’s intellectual underpinnings were developed. We need to move on.

    *I say extreme because I think libertarianism as an *ideal* should be considered in all facets of political decision making, but extremists have hoodwinked themselves into thinking that the ideal can be a system in and of itself. Just want to be clear.

  39. Jasonon 07 Jun 2017 at 1:36 pm

    Is there any better example of projection than the seemingly invariant habit of *extreme libertarians calling others ideologues?

    As I stated above, everyone including me is an ideologue. We all have varying personal values that manifest in our social beliefs as ideals. My ideology includes ideological transparency, which I believe necessary to creating a society in which everyone can live by his own values without imposing them on others. In a free society, one is free to buy a large tract of land and establish a commune. The converse is not possible, however. My advice is to state your values upfront, then discuss the means by which you intend to achieve objectives based on those values, and see whether those means are acceptable to others. Do not assume a prior however, that everyone else is temperamentally an altruist or egalitarian.

    I really wish we could get over extreme libertarianism, and recognize that with 7B people on the planet its “solutions” are a moral philosophy masquerading as a political system.

    I’m not some moral absolutist, but the notion that morality can be divorced from political philosophy is positively perverse.

    Something you might be surprised to learn about me: I actually support fines for vaccine non-compliance as refusal to vaccinate constitutes a threat to my right to life, which is the basis of the non-aggression principle. Likewise, I would support limiting CO2 emissions if presented with compelling evidence that the side-effects of fossil fuel use constituted such a threat. I recognize that like fossil fuels vaccines also have side-effects, but that the risk of not vaccinating far outweighs the benefits of avoiding such side-effects. Apparently that makes me a vaccine side-effect “denier.” This is the essence of Alex Epstein’s argument in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Everyone should read this book.

  40. chikoppion 07 Jun 2017 at 1:56 pm

    In risk management it’s important to consider all factors, even those that can’t be clearly quantified. Investment in renewable energy is warranted (economically, geopolitically, and environmentally). The threat of increasingly adverse economic impact, coupled with competitive market advantage, makes the rate of return on near-term investment likely greater than than that on delayed investment.

    No one is suggesting crippling the economy. Rather, that investment in renewable sources should be aggressively supported given all available evidence.

    https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/climate/renewable-energy-push-is-strongest-in-the-reddest-states.html

    Some of the fastest progress on clean energy is occurring in states led by Republican governors and legislators, and states carried by Donald J. Trump in the presidential election.

    The five states that get the largest percentage of their power from wind turbines — Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Oklahoma and North Dakota — all voted for Mr. Trump. So did Texas, which produces the most wind power in absolute terms. In fact, 69 percent of the wind power produced in the country comes from states that Mr. Trump carried in November.

    Renewable energy that produces no carbon dioxide emissions is not solely a coastal, blue-state phenomenon. From Georgia to the Dakotas, business and political leaders are embracing clean energy sources even as the Trump administration pushes for more exploitation of oil, gas and coal.

    These red states are not motivated by a sudden desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Nor are they joining solidly Democratic New York, Washington and California in defending the Paris climate agreement that President Trump walked away from last week. Instead, their leaders see tapping the wind, and to a lesser degree the sun, as an economic strategy.

  41. chikoppion 07 Jun 2017 at 2:51 pm

    [Jason] As I stated above, everyone including me is an ideologue. We all have varying personal values that manifest in our social beliefs as ideals.

    That’s not common use of the term. Per Merriam-Webster:

    IDEOLOGUE
    1 : an impractical idealist : theorist
    2 : an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology

    Most people are capable of moderating their ideals for the sake of practical outcomes—to seek balance among conflicting virtues. It’s one thing to promote a virtue. It’s entirely another to demand absolute fidelity to that virtue at any cost.

    “Taxation should be fair, effective, and narrowly justified” is an ideal.

    “All taxation should be eliminated no matter the consequence” is ideological.

  42. hardnoseon 07 Jun 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Everything can be explained by natural selection.

  43. bachfiendon 07 Jun 2017 at 11:00 pm

    It should be remembered that ‘Jason’ was originally ‘Atlantean Idol’, a notorious climate change denier.

    He’d found the temperature too hot for him in the retreat of the cryosphere thread back in April, and changed his moniker, announcing it at the time.

    I don’t trust, or give much credence, to his arguments or statistics, dodgy as they are. I suspect he’s a religiously motivated AGW denier, using the Cornwall Alliance as one of her sources.

    He’s just pretending to be reasonable and rational. He’s not.

  44. Nidwinon 08 Jun 2017 at 7:59 am

    Everything can be explained by natural selection.

    Nope hardnose, and nobody claims your ironic comment to be remotely true.

    I’ve a question for you folks. Is there a term or wording that I can use to define the following, a box to put it in?

    The answer to what’s the shortest way from A to B can only be “I don’t know”. The only way to be certain that you have found the shortest way is to be absolutely certain that there isn’t a shorter one, knowledge that isn’t possible to have. (sorry English not my first language)

  45. Jasonon 08 Jun 2017 at 9:14 am

    chikoppi:

    You make a fair point, but in the vernacular “ideologue” is used to refer to an idealist whose ideals one dislikes. We’re all idealists in our own mind and ideologues to someone else.

  46. Nidwinon 08 Jun 2017 at 9:27 am

    Jason

    Are we if we keep it to ourselves or do we become the moment we try to impose to others?

  47. chikoppion 08 Jun 2017 at 10:51 am

    [Jason] You make a fair point, but in the vernacular “ideologue” is used to refer to an idealist whose ideals one dislikes. We’re all idealists in our own mind and ideologues to someone else.

    The term “ideologue” is frequently used disparagingly, but that’s not the distinction I’m making.

    I know and work with many people whose ideals (hierarchy of virtues) are significantly different than mine who I do not consider to be “ideologues.” I also can think of examples of people whose ideals might largely resemble mine who I do consider to be “ideologues” (e.g., extreme single-issue activists).

  48. mumadaddon 09 Jun 2017 at 6:54 pm

    I think a wholesale example of the substitution heuristic in action was the Brexit referendum. The public was faced with a choice, the consequences of which were so complicated and tangled that (as far as I could tell) you would need combine several fields of expertise to even understand all the factors in play. So people voted on the question ‘do I like immigrants?’ or ‘do I like my life as it is now under the Tories?’.

  49. goldmund52on 10 Jun 2017 at 10:39 am

    @Nidwin. I’m not sure what the terminology is you are looking for, but I believe your construction seems like a conundrum because it contains a self-reference paradox. There are lots of variations of self-reference paradox. Yours is pretty close to the Socratic paradox: “All I know is that I know nothing.” In my view, a lot of the perennial philosophical questions are artifacts of the self-referential quality of human language, starting with Platonic Idealism. Create a language category—ideal circle, absolute Truth, pure Knowledge— and then start talking about it as if it exists because you can talk about it.

  50. duofaciatison 10 Jun 2017 at 9:09 pm

    this post yet again explains and confirms my centrist indecisions, or insightfulness.

  51. BillyJoe7on 11 Jun 2017 at 1:28 pm

    Off topic, but I just caught Jerry Coyne talking like a dualist:
    [I’ve been banned from commenting on his blog so I cannot post my comment there]

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/a-remarkable-study-decoding-how-human-faces-are-identified-in-the-primate-brain/#comments

    “it means we’re a lot closer to understanding how the brain translates images into neuronal firing, though of course it tells us little about how that firing is reprocessed by the brain itself into an image”

    It’s an easy mistake to make and it will be interesting to see if any of his acolytes correct him.
    (Not yet – but only two comments to date)

  52. BillyJoe7on 11 Jun 2017 at 7:16 pm

    Follow up:

    Yes, Torbjorn Larsson at comment #7 picked it up.
    Wonder if he’ll get banned 😀
    Also Gregory Kusnick in his reply to Torjorn Larsson.

  53. TheTentacleson 12 Jun 2017 at 9:54 am

    BillyJoe7: yes, Coyne’s sentence is but finely spiralzed word salad. Also there is nothing really very revolutionary about Doris Tsao’s paper, this is classic principal component decomposition. Not to say it isn’t an good paper, but surprise surprise it is an incremental addition to understanding face processing, and but one more nail in the coffin of the grandmother cell. I was speaking to David Leopold (NIH) last Friday, who has developed the norm-model of face processing in macaque face patches, and his population encoding models are very similar to those in the paper (though the axes of encoded features are different). And countless brain machine interface papers over the last 20 years have clearly shown how to decode information from sub-populations of neurons.

    So why does the media blow this out of all proportion: “In addition to cracking the code of a brain in a living animal, this study also discovered how brains recognize faces” — what utterly overegged fluff!

  54. edamameon 12 Jun 2017 at 10:56 am

    Maybe cut Coyne some slack yes his interpretation was hacky, but he was clear he was way outside of his field look at the first sentence of the post where he basically said “I’m probably going to say some stupid stuff here.” He just was trying to point to a cool paper (probably caught his attention because it was featured on NPR).

    I agree and disagree with Tentacles. I agree in that stimulus reconstruction techniques are very common: that is how you study sensory coding in general, after all. Monitor neuronal activity, and quantify how well you can reconstruct the stimulus presented based on that neuronal activity. So that isn’t new (and I don’t think we need something new there–it is a great technique). I also agree that the media is overreaching. As usual.

    I disagree because the study goes so far against the grain, and because of how good their models are. So I do not see this as an incremental addition to our understanding of face processing in real brains. One, using a relatively small sample of neurons, they achieved very high levels of accuracy of the reconstructions, suggesting they are getting closer to the “right” basis set.

    Further, it is a major departure from the status quo in the literature, which is all about sparse highly specific encoding of faces in a more “grandmother” like strategy (as Tentacle pointed out). Further, using STA (spike triggered average) in these higher-level areas is very unusual, as STA it is typically used for lower-level feature detectors (edges and such). This is in line with their population-coding approach, again at odds with usual views of face encoding as sparse and grandmotherly (examplar-based) rather than graded coding on an axis with a more traditional basis set.

    So, I don’t see this as a minor deviation tweaking known models. If it holds up, it will stand out as a wrecking ball of previous models, and will be a key reference in future arguments.

    Note I should admit I haven’t read the paper closely yet, so maybe there are weaknesses lurking that I would find on a closer perusal. My guess is that is not the case because it’s in Cell: you don’t usually get published in Cell with incremental progress and a bunch of lurking holes (but sometimes you do).

    What is interesting is if you look at old school artificial neural network models they were actually pushing for this kind of thing many years ago: distributed coding of faces as an efficient coding strategy using PCA (e.g., Garrison Cottrell’s Neurocomputational Models of Face Processing). I am not a huge fan of connectionist neural network models, as they tend to be so biologically unrealistic and unhelpful in neuroscience.

  55. edamameon 12 Jun 2017 at 1:50 pm

    I cut out the end of my post: ” but in this case maybe they were onto something.”

    Also wouldn’t it be weird if we had distributed population codes for everything in cortex, but somehow faces managed to be special? I’m sure this paper will generate a lot of fallout over the next 5-10 years, so stay tuned!

  56. BillyJoe7on 12 Jun 2017 at 3:12 pm

    I was not criticizing Jerry Coyne’s interpretation of the paper but his misunderstanding of how the brain works. And it was a bit of a surprise for me to hear someone who writes extensively in support of incompatibilist free will speak of brain function in dualistic terms.

  57. edamameon 12 Jun 2017 at 9:15 pm

    BJ7 that whole paragraph could safely be deleted from his post, and it would improve the overall quality. I can’t defend it. I’m just gonna cut him some slack.

  58. BillyJoe7on 13 Jun 2017 at 8:27 am

    …well, I guess I’m going to have to because, in a more recent piece, he seems not to know that there is a difference between depression and depressive disorder. |:

  59. Bill Openthalton 13 Jun 2017 at 8:53 am

    TheTentacles —

    So why does the media blow this out of all proportion: “In addition to cracking the code of a brain in a living animal, this study also discovered how brains recognize faces” — what utterly overegged fluff!

    Because that’s how the press works (and has always worked), mouth-watering headlines hiding thin gruel.

  60. TheTentacleson 14 Jun 2017 at 3:15 am

    Hi edamame, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    I disagree because the study goes so far against the grain. … it is a major departure from the status quo in the literature, which is all about sparse highly specific encoding of faces …

    There are multiple models of face encoding. As I metioned specifically, David Leopold had a norm-based encoding space in 2005, where faces are encoded in dimensions away from a “normalised” face:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v442/n7102/full/nature04951.htmlhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Leopold+DA%5BAuthor%5D+face

    This and subsequent papers from him are neat because you can easily generate “caricature” faces and “anti” faces as you map a particular face in relation to the norm, and neurons respond consistently to these axes (anti ⬄ norm ⬄ caricature generates a V shaped tuning profile). Leopold mentioned that there are at least two other data+models that involved some sort of dimensional encoding.

    He also records using dense microwire bundles so can record from the same neurons separated by very small distances for months on end. And he uses free-viewing monkeys so he can get a more complex behavioural context. He observes that neurons that are basically next to each other are not correlated, strengthening the distributed encoding model:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25855170

    On chatting to him, his view is that face responses are actually distributed across multiple visual areas, and face patches are arbitrarily selected based on % specificity, but even areas as far back as V2/V3 border contain face component responses.

    Doris Tsao’s paper built on previous work from her and Marge Livingstone (2009) that basically showed the same thing, but less elegantly:

    https://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n9/full/nn.2363.html

    There is a huge amount of psychophysics literature that demonstrates feature encoding and this type of dimensionality. I therefore didn’t think that the grandmother cell was the dominant theory of face processing before this paper came out. Distributed population codes have been on the table for simpler features (think curvature shape detection across the ventral stream) and objects for a while. I blame that bloody Quiroga et al., 2005 paper with the “Jennifer Aniston” neurons came out!!!

    I do agree that the Hubel—Wiesel / Marr—Poggio hierarchical model of vision is still a popular feedforward simplification for vision models (most deep-nets are basically classic Poggio-inspired hierarchies). But lots of vision neuroscientists do deeply appreciate population codes, even if it is harder to decode (as experimentalists) the information they contain.

    Miguel Nicolelis (the “father” of the brain machine interface, who pioneered large scale multi-unit recording) has an even more crazy idea for distributed population codes: across brains! He has a 2015 paper with rats:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26158615

    But actually has been recording pairs monkeys who BMI control autonomous wheelchairs using M1 (primary motor cortex) activity. He finds that in tasks where they have to cooperate to get a reward, their respective population activity synchronises (yes, it sounds crazy, but the data is the data [he gave a talk at my inst. a few weeks ago, this is not jet written up]). Nicolelis has shown motor activity in other sensory areas, as well as being able to use somatosensory cortex in motor tasks. This is consistent with lots of evidence that primary sensory corticies are not “primary”: visual cortex responds to auditory input, and is modulated by motor activity — i.e. this is a distributed population.

    Regarding the reconstruction, the original stimuli were built with this 40-dimensional face space, then linearly decoded from the responses against these axes, so it is not like all the pixel information was decoded denovo, but the face “information” was already reduced to the 40 axes.

    I do agree that using STA was cool!

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