Archive for the 'Culture and Society' Category

May 16 2024

Grief Tech

In the awesome show, Black Mirror, one episode features a young woman who lost her husband. In her grief she turns to a company that promises to give her at least a partial experience of her husband. They sift through every picture, video, comment, and other online trace of the person and construct from that a virtual avatar. At first the avatar just texts with the wife, which then progresses to phone calls, and then finally to a full robotic avatar indistinguishable from the lost husband. Except – it is not really indistinguishable. It’s a compliant AI that isn’t quite human.

So-called grief tech is possible now and is getting more popular. This is another instance of technology creating a new ethical situation that we have to confront, and it is too early to really tell what the impact will be. There are companies, mostly in Asia, that will create the virtual avatar of a dead loved-one for you (one company charges $50,000 for the service). They don’t just scrub the internet, they will make hours of high definition video and interviews to create the raw material to train the AI. The result is a high fidelity visual avatar speaking in the voice of the deceased with a chat-bot mimicking their style with access to lots of information about their life.

The important question is not, how good is it. It’s already very good, and clearly it will get incrementally better. It will also likely get much cheaper. Eventually it will be an app on your phone. The question is – is all this a net positive and healthy experience or is it mostly creepy and unhealthy? I suspect the answer will likely be yes – both. It will depend on the individual and the situation, and even for the individual there are likely to be positive and negative aspects. Either way – we are about to find out.

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May 06 2024

Washington Post on Past Lives

Generally speaking the mainstream media does a terrible job of reporting anything in the realm of pseudoscience or the paranormal. The Washington Post’s recent article on children who apparently remember their past lives is no exception. Journalists generally don’t have the background or skill set necessary to deal with these often complex topics. They also don’t seem to care, looking at such stories as “fluff” pieces and see nothing but their click-bait potential. Almost universally missing from such pieces in effective skepticism. At best you may get some token skepticism, buried deep in the article, and usually immediately nullified by another anecdote or unchallenged claim. Such pieces, if they do rely on experts, focus on believers.

I have written before about reincarnation. The Post article focuses on the same researcher, Stevenson, who always gets cited, because of his large body of research. The post article, in the end, is just regurgitating the same old arguments and evidence that has already been picked over by skeptics.

The lead anecdote is of a toddler who has an imaginary friend, Nina, and begins to weave increasingly details stories about Nina and her life. The detail that gets her parents most interested is when their daughter says, “Nina has numbers on her arm and it makes her sad.” This was interpreted as a memory from a Nazi concentration camp. There are basically two ways to interpret such behavior by children – either they are genuine memories of a past life (or some other source of actual memories), or they are fantasies. Here is a typical line of argument from the Post article:

She explained that at age 2 or 3, children engage in fantasy play, but they are not likely to fabricate a statement involving their primary relationships. In other words: Saying “You’re not my mom” or “I want my other parents” or “Where are my children?” — common among these cases — is not something you would typically expect a very young child to say, let alone repeat insistently. “It doesn’t sound like confusion,” Klein says. “It sounds like a real statement. And young children just don’t make this kind of thing up.”

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Apr 22 2024

Indigenous Knowledge

Published by under Culture and Society

I recently received the following question to the SGU e-mail:

“I have had several conversations with friends/colleagues lately regarding indigenous beliefs/stories. They assert that not believing these based on oral histories alone is morally wrong and ignoring a different cultures method of knowledge sharing. I do not want to be insensitive, and I would never argue this point directly with an indigenous person (my friends asserting these points are all white). But it really rubs me the wrong way to be told to believe things without what I would consider more concrete evidence. I’m really not sure how to comport myself in these situations. I would love to hear any thoughts you have on this topic, as I don’t have many skeptical friends.”

I also frequently encounter this tension, between a philosophical dedication to scientific methods and respect of indigenous cultures. Similar tensions come up in other contexts, such as indigenous cultures that hunt endangered species. These tensions are sometimes framed as “decolonization” defined as “the process of freeing an institution, sphere of activity, etc. from the cultural or social effects of colonization.” Here is a more detailed description:

“Decolonization is about “cultural, psychological, and economic freedom” for Indigenous people with the goal of achieving Indigenous sovereignty — the right and ability of Indigenous people to practice self-determination over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems.”

I completely understand this concept and think the project is legitimate. To “decolonize” an indigenous culture you have to do more than just physically remove foreign settlers. Psychological and cultural colonization is harder to remove. And often cultural colonization was very deliberate, such as missionaries spreading the “correct” religion to “primitive” people.

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Mar 29 2024

Is Music Getting Simpler

Published by under Culture and Society

I don’t think I know anyone personally who doesn’t have strong opinions about music – which genres they like, and how the quality of music may have changed over time. My own sense is that music as a cultural phenomenon is incredibly complex, no one (in my social group) really understands it, and our opinions are overwhelmed by subjectivity. But I am fascinated by it, and often intrigued by scientific studies that try to quantify our collective cultural experience. And I know there are true experts in this topic, musicologists and even ethnomusicologists, but haven’t found good resources for science communication in this area (please leave any recommendations in the comments).

In any case, here are some random bits of music culture science that I find interesting. A recent study analyzing 12,000 English language songs over the last 40 years has found that songs have been getting simpler and more repetitive over time. They are using fewer words with greater repetition. Further, the structure of the lyrics are getting simpler, and they are more readable and easier to understand. Also, the use of emotional words has increased, and has become overall more negative and more personal. I have to note this is a single study and there are some concerns about the software used in the analysis, but while this is being investigated the authors state that it is unlikely any glitch will alter their basic findings.

But taken at face value, it’s interesting that these findings generally fit with my subjective experience. This doesn’t necessarily make me more confident in the findings, and I do worry that I am just viewing these results through my confirmation bias filter. Still, it not only fits what I have perceived in music but in culture in general, especially with social media. We should be wary of simplistic explanations, but I wonder if this is mainly due to a general competition for attention. Overtime there is a selective pressure for media that is more immediate, more emotional, and easier to consume. The authors also speculate that it may reflect our changing habits in terms of consuming media. There is a greater tendency to listen to music, for example, in the background, while doing other things (perhaps several other things).

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Feb 15 2024

Using AI and Social Media to Measure Climate Change Denial

Published by under Culture and Society

A recent study finds that 14.8% of Americans do not believe in global climate change. This number is roughly in line with what recent survey have found, such as this 2024 Yale study which put the figure at 16%. In 2009, by comparison, the figure was at 33% (although this was a peak – the 2008 result was 21%). The numbers are also encouraging when we ask about possible solutions, with 67% of Americans saying that we should prioritize development of green energy and should take steps to become carbon neutral by 2050. The good news is that we now have a solid majority of Americans who accept the consensus on climate change and broadly support measures to reduce our carbon footprint.

But there is another layer to this study I first mentioned – the methods used in deriving the numbers. It was not a survey. It used artificial intelligence to analyze posts on X (Twitter) and their networks. The fact that the results aligns fairly well to more tried and true methods, like surveys, is somewhat validating of the methods. Of course surveys can be variable as well, depending on exactly how questions are asked and how populations are targeted. But multiple well designed survey by experienced institutions, like Pew, can create an accurate picture of public attitudes.

The advantage of analyzing social media is that it can more easily provide vast amounts of data. The authors report:

We used a Deep Learning text recognition model to classify 7.4 million geocoded tweets containing keywords related to climate change. Posted by 1.3 million unique users in the U.S., these tweets were collected between September 2017 and May 2019.

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Nov 28 2023

The Threat of Technology

In my second book (shameless plug alert) – The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future – my coauthors and I try to imagine both the utopian and dystopian versions of the future, brought about by technology, either individually or collectively. This topic has come up multiple times recently on this blog when discussing technology and trust in science and scientists, so I thought it deserved its own discussion.

The overarching point is that science and technology should not be thought of as pure objective good, but rather they are tools, and tools can be used for good or evil. I admit I am a science enthusiast and a technophile, also a bit of an optimist, so when I hear about a new discovery or technology my first thoughts go to all the ways that it might make life better, or at least cooler. I have to remember to consider all the ways in which the technology can also be abused or exploited, which is why we explicitly did this in our futurism book.

So far, on the balance I think science and technology has been an incredible plus to humanity. For most of human existence life was “short, nasty, and brutish.” Science has given us a greater perspective on ourselves and the universe, freeing us from ignorance and superstition. And technology has given us the power to extend our lives, improve our health, and control our environment. It enables us to peer deep into the universe, and see for the first time a microscopic world that was always there but we had no idea existed. It enables us to travel beyond the confines of our planet, and eventually (if we survive) will enable us to be a multi-world, and even multi-system, species.

I do think we have lost touch with how bad life was prior to modern technology. Our period movies, for example, are highly romanticized. A brutally accurate portrayal of life prior to the industrial revolution would show people with horrible dentition ravaged by diseases and living mostly in drudgery. Most people never saw the world beyond their small village.  We get a hint of this sometimes, but never the reality.

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Nov 16 2023

Trust in Science

Published by under Culture and Society

How much does the public trust in science and scientists? Well, there’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with the bad news – a recent Pew survey finds that trust in scientist has been in decline for the last few years. From its recent peak in 2019, those who answered that science has a mostly positive effect on society decreased from 73% to 57%. Those who say it has a mostly negative effect increased from 3 to 8%. Those who trust in scientists a fair amount or a great deal decreased from 86 to 73%. Those who think that scientific investments are worthwhile remain strong at 78%.

The good news is that these numbers are relatively high compared to other institutions and professions. Science and scientists still remain among the most respected professions, behind the military, teachers, and medical doctors, and way above journalists, clergy, business executives, and lawyers. So overall a majority of Americans feel that science and scientists are trustworthy, valuable, and a worthwhile investment.

But we need to pay attention to early warning signs that this respect may be in jeopardy. If we get to the point that a majority of the public do not feel that investment in research is worthwhile, or that the findings of science can be trusted, that is a recipe for disaster. In the modern world, such a society is likely not sustainable, certainly not as a stable democracy and economic leader. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to dig deeper on what might be behind the recent dip in numbers.

It’s worth pointing out some caveats. Surveys are always tricky, and the results depend heavily on how questions are asked. For example, if you ask people if they trust “doctors” in the abstract the number is typically lower than if you ask them if they trust their doctor. People tend to separate their personal experience from what they think is going on generally in society, and are perhaps too willing to dismiss their own evidence as “exceptions”. If they were favoring data over personal anecdote, that would be fine. But they are often favoring rumor, fearmongering, and sensationalism. Surveys like this, therefore, often reflect the public mood, rather than deeply held beliefs.

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Nov 14 2023

Hunter-Gatherers and Childcare

Published by under Culture and Society

What is “natural” for humans? It’s often hard to say, and in my opinion this is a highly overused concept. Primarily this is because humans are adaptable – we adapt to our environment, our situation, and our culture. So it is “natural” for us not to have a natural state.

But this does not mean there are no insights to be gained by considering the evolutionary milieu in which our ancestors spent the vast majority of their existence. By rapidly changing our environment we may be pushing the limits of our adaptability. We also need to consider the difference between surviving and thriving. We may survive in the world we have created for ourselves, but pay some price. For those of us living in industrialized societies, it’s also difficult to appreciate how different our lives are from the vast majority of human history and societies. What is now “normal” for us is a recent anomaly.

We can apply this line of thinking to many aspects of our lives, but I want to consider childcare. A recent study looking at Mbendjele BaYaka Hunter-Gatherers in the Republic of Congo found a number of interesting thing regarding childcare. Young children received physical contact for the majority of their day. Overall they had near constant attention from a caretaker. About half of this attention came from someone other than the child’s mother or parents. Children benefitted form a network of caregivers of 10 or more people, and occasionally as many as 20 or more. Older children, teenagers, and adult relatives all contributed to childcare. These networks potentially have a number of implications.

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Oct 30 2023

Finding Common Ground on Democracy

Published by under Culture and Society

How is American democracy doing, and what can we do to improve it, if necessary? This is clearly a question of political science, and I am not a political scientist, and this is not a political blog. But there are some basic principles of critical thinking that might apply, and the second word in “political science” is “science”. Further, while this is not a political blog, what that really means is that I endeavor to be non-partisan. I am not trying to advocate for any particular party or ideological group. But many of the issues I discuss have a political dimension, because most issues do. Global warming is a scientific question, but there are massive political consequences, for example.

So if you will indulge me, I want to apply some basic critical thinking principles to some pressing questions regarding our democracy. My goal is to see if we can find some common ground. This is something I frequently recommend in many contexts – if you are trying to convince someone that a particular belief of theirs is pseudoscience, a good place to start is to establish some common ground and then proceed from there. Otherwise you will likely be talking past each other.

Also, despite the fact that we seem to be having increasing partisan division in this country, my sense is that we still have much more common ground than may be apparent. The media and politicians both benefit from emphasizing division, conflict, and differences. Keeping everyone as outraged and agitated as possible maximizes clicks and votes. Both polling and personal experience, if you look beyond the surface level, also tell a story of common ground. Most common-sense positions are supported by large majorities. Most people want basically the same things – safety, prosperity, liberty, transparency and fairness. This is not to minimize the very real different value judgements that exist in society. This is why we need democracy to work out compromises.

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Oct 05 2023

Evidence and the Nanny State

Published by under Culture and Society

One side benefit of our federalist system is that the US essentially has 50 experiments in democracy. States hold a lot of power, which provides an opportunity to compare the effects of different public policies. There are lots of other variables at play, such as economics, rural vs urban residents, and climate, but with so many different states, and counties within those states, researchers often have enough data to account for these variables.

While the differences among the states go beyond red state vs blue state, this is an important factor when it comes to public policy, and there is at least one fairly consistent ideological difference. Red states tend to favor policies the lean toward liberty and are pro-business. Blue states are more willing to enact public policy that limits freedom or regulates business but are designed to benefit public health. These public health policies are often denigrated by conservatives as the “nanny state” – portraying the government as a caretaker and citizens as children.

Across the 50 states there is more of a continuum than a sharp divide, both politically and in public policy, again providing a natural experiment of the effects and costs of such policies. It’s not my point to say which approach is “right” because there is a tradeoff and a value judgement involved. One bit of conventional wisdom I agree with is that in politics there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. How much freedom are we willing to give up for security, and how much inconvenience are we willing to put up with for improved health?

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