Archive for September, 2019

Sep 09 2019

Born That Way

Published by under Neuroscience

If someone is a bad person based on their behavior, are they more likely to have been born that way, or the result of environmental factors? Does it matter to how you would treat them, or how they should ethically be treated? If someone is a very good person, is their behavior the result of nature vs nurture? The actual answer to this age-old nature vs nurture debate is – it’s complicated. Both factors play a role in a complex interaction that differs for different people. It’s likely that true psychopaths were born that way, lacking an empathy circuit that most typical people possess in their brains. But of course there are also cultural norms that have a profound effect on our behavior.

Psychologists have been asking a slightly different question – not what the answer objectively is, but what do people assume that it is, and how does that affect their behavior toward other people. The assumption or belief that behavior is due primarily to instrinsic factors is called essentialism. A recent study looked at both children and adults and how they thought about characters with both morally good and morally bad behavior. Prior research suggests that in general we tend to attribute other people’s behavior to essential factors. People don’t just do good vs bad things, they are good vs bad.

This is part of what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute our own behavior to external factors and other people’s behavior to internal factors. I am the victim of circumstances beyond my control, but that other person (perhaps acting in an identical way) is just a bad person.

The new study adds some further nuance to this effect. They found that study participants (both children and adults) were more likely to attribute good moral behavior to essentialist causes than bad moral behavior. So if someone does good things, it’s because they are a good person. If they do bad things, it’s because of their bad environment. This is an interesting result, and suggest several questions to me. First, how universal is this? Is that result itself a product of learned behavior, a product of our time and culture? Would the result have been different in the 1950s in the US, and would it be different in other countries? I would also be interested in seeing how the results differ based on ideology.

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Sep 06 2019

Information Gerrymandering

Democracy, in a very real sense, is math. The point is to aggregate decision-making in order to arrive at the fairest outcome for the greatest number of people. Andrea Jones-Rooy, who spoke at NECSS this year, gave a great lecture about this. Here is an article she wrote about Arrow’s Theorem that goes over the basic concept, but she went into more detail during the talk. Essentially there is no system of voting that has perfect fairness (ranked choice vs least objectionable option, for example), so we just have to pick one and live with the trade-offs.

Jones-Rooy, however, was talking about different systems that work as intended, no cheating. If, however, one group puts their thumb on the scale, the democratic process can be massively distorted. Beyond a certain point you no longer even have a true democracy. Voting becomes a sham used to give a patina of legitimacy to a dictator or minority rule.

Perhaps the best known form of voting distortion in the US is gerrymandering. The best description I have heard of this is that it is a way for politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters to choose their politicians. The idea is to carve up voting districts deliberately to favor one party, so that even if they have 40% of the voters in one state, they can secure 60% or more of the representatives. (This doesn’t work for senators or presidents where voting is state-wide.)

Researchers, however, have published an article in Nature in which they describe a more insidious form of distortion – information gerrymandering. This amounts to a rigorous mathematical description of a phenomenon we have been discussing, the effect of social media networks on public opinion. They found:

Players are assigned to competing groups (parties) and placed on an ‘influence network’ that determines whose voting intentions each player can observe. Players are incentivized to vote according to partisan interest, but also to coordinate their vote with the entire group. Our mathematical analysis uncovers a phenomenon that we call information gerrymandering: the structure of the influence network can sway the vote outcome towards one party, even when both parties have equal sizes and each player has the same influence.

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Sep 05 2019

DNA Analysis of Loch Ness

Published by under Skepticism

If you have never been to the highlands of Scotland, add it to your list of places you should visit. It is incredibly beautiful. When I was there last year we visited Loch Lomond of lyrical fame, and also the largest lake in Great Britain. We were given the option of instead visiting Loch Ness, and we had to explain to our guide that she had a bus full of skeptics. She was relieved because she thought Lomond was the better destination, but of course most tourists want to see the more famous Loch.

The legend of the Loch Ness Monster has now taken on a life of its own, and it seems unlikely that any evidence, no matter how definitive, will kill it. Rumors of a monster in the Loch go back centuries, but the modern myth was kicked off by the famous Surgeon’s Photo. In 1934 Colonel Robert Wilson, a British surgeon, published his now iconic photo. His accomplice later confessed this was a hoax, using a model built out of a toy submarine and a clay head (which I always thought looked like it was modeled after an arm and hand). But it was too late, a myth was born.

A recent headline from the BBC now declares: “Loch Ness Monster may be a giant eel, say scientists.” The problem with this claim is that there is no Loch Ness Monster, so it can’t be anything. Of course they mean that giant eels may be responsible for Nessie sightings, but even this is misleading. There is likely no single phenomenon responsible for the continued sightings of something unusual in Loch Ness.

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Sep 03 2019

The Politics of Nuclear Power

Published by under Technology

Our president is a global warming denier, is anti-vaccine, and is a conspiracy theorist. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, being anti-science is never a good thing. When those in positions of power are ignorant of science and hostile to the institutions of science and the methods that those institutions espouse, that is a recipe for disaster.

But even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. And even though there appears to be a significant asymmetry in the degree to which our two major political parties take anti-scientific positions, on some issues the political left has it wrong for their own ideological reasons. The two big anti-science issues popular on the left are anti-GMO stances and anti-nuclear energy. The latter was recently brought into sharp relief when Trump signed a, “Memorandum on the Effect of Uranium Imports on the National Security and Establishment of the United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group.” 

I doubt that Trump, who has demonstrated profound anti-intellectualism and even an unwillingness to read, has a deep knowledge of the scientific issues surrounding nuclear power, but he is a conduit for those who do, unfettered by political opposition (which remains on the left). Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, in his version of the green new deal, states, “To get to our goal of 100 percent sustainable energy, we will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.” He plans to completely and quickly phase out all nuclear power in the US.

I have to point out for completeness that more moderate Democratic candidates, like Joe Biden, do include nuclear power in their energy infrastructure plans to combat global warming.

Also, attitudes toward nuclear power have been moving toward more favorable in recent years. This seems to be due to a few factors. The more people know about nuclear power, the more favorable they are towards it. Fears about global warming have caused some to moderate their views on nuclear energy. And newer reactors designs are moving toward smaller and safer designs.

There is still an asymmetry politically, however. Only 31% of Democrats say that nuclear power is essential or helpful, while 34% say it would be harmful. For Republicans the numbers are 50% and 17% respectively.

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